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Dow and WBCSD team up on natural capital tool

Green over gray: solving environmental challenges with nature-based solutions.

We all rely on the critical services nature provides. Yet 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded over the past 50 years. When you take into account changes in land use, this damage is responsible for roughly 20 percent of carbon emissions globally. It’s time to take action. 

Businesses must play a key part in the solution — investing in the natural resources on which they rely so heavily in order to reverse this trend. In fact, it’s the only way they can continue to benefit from ecosystem services and access resources such as water and clean air that are critical to their operations. 

As the COP21 negotiations take place in Paris, it’s important to note that ecosystem services also can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to conserve and expand carbon sinks. At the same time, the natural functions of ecosystems can support human life in the face of the negative effects of climate change, such as heat waves, floods or droughts.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and its member companies are proud to take action through the Natural Infrastructure for Business platform launched in Paris today. The online platform was developed by WBCSD in collaboration with CH2M, the Nature Conservancy, program co-chairs Dow and Shell, as well as more than 30 companies. 

The platform strengthens the business case for investing in natural infrastructure, demonstrating cost-efficient solutions along with compelling benefits for the economy, environment and society. 

Natural — or "green" — infrastructure is a planned or managed ecosystem (such as a marsh, mangrove or wetland) that delivers benefits to society. Companies can help harness green infrastructure as a substitute for or in conjunction with man-made, or "gray," infrastructure, such as levees or water treatment plants. 

For too long, we’ve neglected to treat nature’s challenges by considering nature and the impacts and opportunities related to it. However, today — together — we have an opportunity to change that. 

Consider soil and water remediation. Common approaches to remediating and restoring land to its original state often require significant disturbances to the landscape. One natural solution Dow has adopted to lessen this potential is phytoremediation, a process that uses the power of nature to get rid of contaminants.

Using trees with a sleeve that allows the roots to grow deep into the ground — instead of spreading horizontally — means those roots naturally act like a straw, drawing contaminants through the plant system, where they are naturally processed and degraded. Results show it’s a simpler and more economical method than traditional industry practices, and benefits the environment by avoiding land disturbance and reducing the use of fossil fuel energy. 

WBCSD’s online platform includes a series of case studies from different industries leveraging various ecosystem services. It also features tools to guide business decision-making, including a cost-benefit analysis. 

The WBCSD is also working with the United Nations Environment Program and a core group of partners and companies on the development of a capacity-building program on Natural Infrastructure for Business. It is expected to be released in the second quarter of 2016. 

The ultimate objective of these initiatives is to move towards a model where by 2020, companies systematically will assess their natural infrastructure options when investing in new sites or projects. By doing so, they can contribute to protecting and restoring existing ecosystems as well as create new ones.

Dow has seen the evidence of the value of nature’s services. More than 20 years after dioxane production stopped at a Dow facility in Terneuzen, Netherlands, surrounding groundwater still contained high concentrations of the chemical. Dow’s challenge was to find a cost-effective and efficient method to clean it up.

The traditionally accepted approach — pump and treat — would have cost $1.96 million and required water additives. Plant-based phytoremediation, in contrast, could get the job done at half the cost and in a more sustainable way by reducing impact on land and water. The choice was easy: Pick the option that works for both business and the environment. 

Dow planted 240 trees onsite in late 2012. Nearly three years later, the trees are growing steadily and groundwater measurements show the dioxane is being drawn into the roots and treated by the plants. This initial success is encouraging, and the benefits are expected to become more pronounced as the trees mature and more water is processed. 

Another example took place at a Dow-owned site in North Seadrift, Texas, which had maxed out its wastewater treatment capacity. The wastewater treatment process originally consisted of shallow ponds covering 267 acres. While the ponds helped store wastewater, it was stagnant, creating ideal conditions for algal bloom. It also required around-the-clock pH adjustments. Rather than implementing gray infrastructure, Dow chose to treat the problem with a green infrastructure solution: a constructed wetland. 

The constructed wetland, or natural infrastructure, provided freshwater wildlife habitat for a broad range of species and eliminated the need to adjust pH. That was more than a decade ago. Since then, the project has eliminated algal bloom while at the same time safely and successfully treating the wastewater. It also has demonstrated savings in net present value of more than $200 million. 

Both of these examples support Dow’s 2025 Sustainability Goal to value nature, which makes the company the first to demonstrate the business value of nature on a global scale. Over the next 10 years, Dow has committed to deliver $1 billion in net present value through projects that are good for business and for the environment, and will share what it has learned with important business groups such as WBCSD.

Natural infrastructure alone won’t solve all of our sustainability challenges — but global collaboration will help. Investing in nature can be a win-win for business value and for the environment, and can be a way for companies to support the global response to climate change.

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