Soon after a tech company announced its ambition to become carbon neutral, a senior executive from its sustainability department called one of us for advice on developing and implementing a well-rounded nature-based solutions strategy.
In their own words, "… we see a lot of corporations handwaving at nature-based solutions, but we want to develop a truly impactful and robust nature-based solutions strategy. Unfortunately, however, we do not have in-house expertise in our sustainability team who can craft novel and effective initiatives."
Of course, these remarks come from a single company, but this lack of nature-based solutions expertise is not unique; it is a pervasive phenomenon. Unless it is a natural resource sector company (forestry and agriculture sector companies), the likelihood of in-house expertise in nature-based solutions is indeed slim.
Nature-based solutions harness the power of functional ecosystems to mitigate climate change. Sustainability efforts of companies in natural resource sectors, agriculture and forestry, are inherently tied to nature-based solutions.
For example, commonly adopted sustainability practices of forestry and food companies such as selective harvesting, growing native species, minimizing soil disturbance and promoting regenerative agriculture are all nature-based solutions. These ecologically responsible forest and agricultural practices provide twin benefits: They reduce CO2 emissions associated with agriculture and forestry operations and enhance the capacity of soils and forest ecosystems to store CO2. Notably, these nature-based sustainability practices are tied to the core operations of natural resource companies. So, these companies often have nature-based solutions experts who can carefully craft effective projects.
In devising strategies for nature-based solutions, companies must carefully consider perverse outcomes that they may engender locally and globally.
For companies outside natural resource sectors — be it a tech company, an automobile manufacturer, a drugmaker — the situation is quite different. Nature-based initiatives are not tied to their core operations. So, even when they adopt such initiatives to bolster their sustainability efforts, they typically take a minimalistic approach. This often results in an arm’s length engagement, that is, purchasing carbon credits from a seller on the offset market. At best, this passive approach precludes companies from harnessing the full potential of nature-based solutions, and at worst it can have negative ramifications. We feel that companies must take the following three steps for a fuller and deeper engagement with nature-based solutions.
1. Develop a bioproducts orientation
Every business, even a service provider such as an IT company, uses various products to carry out its day-to-day operations. Developing a bioproducts orientation — essentially replacing products made of nonrenewable materials with those made of renewable materials — can help companies align their sustainability efforts with nature-based solutions.
Look closely at your machines, products, office shelves, buildings. See if you can replace some with bioproducts. For example, if you are an electronics company, consider developing microprocessors made out of wood fiber. Or, if your products must be bottled, you may consider joining the paper bottle community. Perhaps your office furniture could be all wooden. Or, as Google recently announced, your future office buildings could be made of wood as lumber is considered more environmentally friendly than concrete and steel.
2. Turn offsets into onsets
Carbon offset markets are in a nascent stage. Whether it is afforestation-based or soil-based carbon offset projects, there are considerable confusion and debate.
Companies send overly simplistic messages to their stakeholders in a rush to signal sincerity behind carbon neutrality pledges. It is essential companies transparently communicate to stakeholders that offsetting is in an experimental stage. It is also vital for them to learn how offsets could be made more reliable and effective.
We believe that the main narrative in the offsetting space will quickly shift from its current focus on "whether to offset" to "where to offset." Companies must forge strategic alliances with large-scale offset operations with a commitment to sustainability and small landowners and Indigenous communities to explore the most effective offset pathways. Such alliances will be competitively advantageous in the future when offsetting markets mature and competition for high-quality offsets intensifies.
3. Beware of landmines
For all their apparent environmental benefits, nature-based initiatives bring with them many caveats and conditions. In today’s interconnected world, the effects of our actions quickly ripple far and wide. In devising strategies for nature-based solutions, companies must carefully consider perverse outcomes that they may engender locally and globally.
For example, a bioproducts orientation may increase companies’ risk of becoming a graveyard for illegally harvested wood unless its suppliers follow sustainable purchasing policies and have a robust mechanism to trace supply sources. Similarly, plantation-based offset projects could displace poor communities from their lands, leading to what is dubbed "land grabbing."
Akin to the sport of golf, developing nature-based solutions may seem at first glance to be deceptively simple. In reality, they are highly complex and require an adaptive approach of continuous learning and revisioning. Companies with foresight recognize that casual handwaving at nature-based solutions is not a viable approach for the long term. To get ahead of their competitors, they must devise nature-based solutions strategies that are broad-based so they harness the full potential, and are holistic and robust enough not to backfire.
To those ends, companies need experts on their sustainability teams who are well-versed with a wide range of bioproducts applications. They need experts who understand ecology and ecosystem mechanisms and can analyze global consequences of human action by taking an Earth-systems approach. Finally, they need individuals who can work with supply-chain tracing tools based on advances in such diverse disciplines as remote sensing, geographical information systems and wood chemistry.
Forestry and natural resource management schools impart such wide-ranging and integrative training to their students. Most important, they train students to be guided by the conservation ethic when making complex decisions.
That corporate sustainability programs are increasingly becoming nature-based is a uniquely promising opportunity to halt climate change. Fully seizing this opportunity requires companies to hire those who study natural systems, natural products and their interactions with societies.