Build less, measure more: A fresh model for conservation finance

Black and white graphic of Mississippi River system
REF
Restore the Earth aims to protect the part of the lower Mississippi River Basin shown in blue, offsetting the total climate footprint of the United States by 2 percent.

Almost every sustainability exec knows the pressure of providing metrics to support a green investment. Conservation finance can relieve that pressure by computing values for healthier ecosystems. It's the budding practice of using capital markets to promote and protect habitats.

One practitioner is banking on its capability to compute the value of restoring a million acres around the southern Mississippi River.

The Restore the Earth Foundation (REF) teams with public agencies and other nonprofits to acquire land, restrict development there and measure the ensuing ecological benefits. Last year, the organization began to grow a revolving fund it targets for "North America’s Amazon" — the Mississippi River, that is, not the retail-stomping company.

The project uses money from partners who buy in to acquire more land — and it even recruits volunteers from donor corporations to dig and plant trees. With a staff of six and a board of five, Restore the Earth is raising capital to reforest 1 million acres of valley around the lower Mississippi.

What makes this process unique is an evaluation tool called EcoMetrics, which uses big data, imaging and integrated reporting. REF Founder PJ Marshall described this as a formula that measure positive effects including cleaner air and water, as well as from new land-restoration jobs and economic activity nearby. Plug these positive effects into the EcoMetrics model, said Marshall, and an accounting gain grows from each investment.

Treating nature as an input and treating restoration projects as volunteer opportunities checks off a few managerial boxes. It also can capitalize on the availability of publicly owned, underused land.

For example, a farming or gaming agency sometimes gladly will convey land to another party to manage for long-term health under an easement — a covenant that limits development. Restore the Earth uses a revolving fund to purchase land, set it up with conservation easements that restrict real-estate development, and declare the value of the reforesting through its proprietary model.

The organization stated it steers 94 percent of its donations into programs, uses local experts to select and plant trees and fosters good ground for hunters and recreational fishers. According to Marshall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised her to set up a revolving fund for projects.

"They and their partners felt that to be able to scale this by getting restoration and putting permanent conservation easements on property, then financing could return to us," she said. That insight drove Restore the Earth to work with advisers to bang out the EcoMetrics valuation model: "There’s a lack in most instances of a metric to monetize the impact of any initiative."

Corporate Partner X capitalizes a project to buy land. Local Organization Y then buys the land at "market value," with covenants to keep it from developers' hands. The capital gains roll back into a fund for more acquisitions. And Restore the Earth sets up activities so that business partners’ staff get in on the digging and planting. 

That’s the pitch Marshall, who started the organization after decades in marketing, made at Climate Week NYC in September — and has made to players (and partners) as big as Shell, Entergy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The proposition trades on leverage. Buying lightly used public land, then using EcoMetrics to quantify positive returns, Restore the Earth gives corporate partners both a positive visible project and a measurable economic gain.

One executive decided to ride this mission alongside the group. Ed Piñero, formerly the North American sustainability lead at civil-engineering company Veolia, is consulting to REF. As he put it, companies that literally run on natural resources, including ride-hailing firm Lyft and clothier Eileen Fisher, each made a positive business decision when they signed on as partners.

REF helps to harness the power to leverage ecosystem services — the things a healthy ecosystem does — for operating benefit. For Veolia, a wastewater treatment plant on a coastline becomes a sitting duck amid sea-level rise, Piñero explained. Protecting coastal resilience "is a matter of avoiding a much worse cost," he said.

The metric attracted VMWare, which specializes in running data centers and other Internet infrastructure more efficiently. "Because of my background in systems thinking and ecology, Restore the Earth’s EcoMetrics framework immediately resonated," said Nicola Acutt, VMWare's vice president of sustainability.

Since embarking on its mission to restore a million acres of the lower Mississippi Valley, Restore the Earth has completed dozens of projects between coastal Louisiana and western Kentucky. Four more are underway. Local conservation and hunting groups often participate in buying and managing the land. The electronics, food and fossil-fuel companies that Piñero approaches on Restore the Earth’s behalf make money from the ecosystem.

And utilities such as Entergy welcome the clarity EcoMetrics brings, Marshall said. "But the bottom line is that healthy communities in their service areas can pay their utility bills."

The organization’s model also can help companies such as VMWare reach self-defined goals to quit fossil fuels. According to Acutt, VMWare may talk with Restore the Earth about countering the carbon output elsewhere in its supply chain over the coming years. “We hope to continue the partnership to include innovative and creative offsets as part of our broader portfolio. We like what they’re doing because of the scale," Acutt said.