Environmental NGOs have long argued that our economy depends on our ecology, because everything we eat, breathe, or produce ultimately comes from nature. The argument, however, has been slow to migrate into business plans, and NGOs – and forward-looking companies – are using this year’s climate talks to change that.
8 December 2015 | PARIS | Environmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) promote conservation for its own sake. The private sector, however, usually acts only after a direct impact to its bottom line.
“In the business context, saving nature for nature’s sake does not work,” said Neil Hawkins, Corporate Vice President of Sustainability at Dow Chemical Company, speaking at the Global Landscapes Forum, which took place at the midpoint of ongoing UN climate talks here.
He was responding to growing evidence that nature-based solutions or “green infrastructure” developments, which leverage or mimic natural ecosystems to produce necessary services like water and air purification or storm protection, can solve pressing business challenges effectively.
“Green infrastructure is simply a good deal,” said Mark Tercek, TNC’s CEO. “It often costs less than grey infrastructure, performs better and delivers a whole bunch of co-benefits for free.”
Dow Dips Its Toe
Many businesses are getting the message, forgoing the traditional concrete wastewater treatment facilities for constructed wetlands, for instance, which have added biodiversity benefits. A constructed wetland in Texas delivered $200 million in value to Dow while also providing several hundred acres of migratory bird habitat, Hawkins said. In a separate project in Texas, Dow discovered planting trees helped clean contaminants out of groundwater, and at a much lower cost than the “pump and treat” techniques.
Dow appears to be inspired by its discovery of nature-based solutions, and now it aims to incorporate nature evaluations into all its business decisions by 2025.
“It’s an ambitious target that could potentially lead to projects worth billions of dollars that are a win-win for nature and for Dow,” Hawkins said.
Dow isn’t the only company embracing natural solutions. The agriculture company Syngenta incorporated natural habitat among its farmed lands to enhance wild pollinator populations, a struggling sector worth over $USD 150 billion.
The Need for Scale
But the businesses looking at development through a nature-based lens must significantly grow in number, because 60% of the world’s ecosystems are already degraded, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). As they die, ecosystems stop generating the services needed for life and business – such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, and other activities. What’s more, degradation represents 20% of global carbon emissions, making it something of a climate issue as well. For business operations to proceed without natural resource-related disruptions, more investment in natural infrastructure is greatly needed.
Making the Case
Scale won’t come without communication, so a consortium led by WBCSD and its member companies TNC, Dow, and global engineering firm CH2M, along with TNC, launched the Natural Infrastructure for Business platform.
“We believe we can use the science to help businesses and governments better understand the benefits of green infrastructure, which will direct a lot of dollars now flowing toward grey infrastructure to green and scale up investments in nature across the board,” said Tercek.
Within the information-heavy website are case studies from a plethora of industry sectors and assessment tools related to natural infrastructure approaches.
“The natural infrastructure for business platform is an impressive playbook for how any company can go in and assess what the options are,” says Hawkins.
Brandy Wilson, the Global Sustainability Director at CH2M noted the tool’s “decision tree,” which lays out something of a procedure to assessing nature when venturing on a new project or seeking answers to a challenge. This includes a list of both financial and non-financial criteria for businesses to consider. It also enables a way for companies to have a conversation with management that discusses the options, benefits and co-benefits of natural infrastructure, Wilson says.
The site aims to raise awareness on the benefits of nature-based solutions allowing companies to acquire knowledge on the subject while also assessing if a natural approach is the right approach for their project.
“Green and natural infrastructure won’t be the right choice in every case,” Hawkins says. Rather, the tool is something of a roadmap allowing companies to assess these solutions and then make a decision.
A Business Mindset
Approaching nature in a business context can mean thinking of ecosystems as parts of company operations, says Tercek. Forests, for example, are a key piece of water infrastructure when considering that healthy forested watersheds deliver a clean supply of water. Through this line of thinking, TNC has partnered with beverage companies like Coca-Cola to protect water supplies and, therefore, forests.
Protecting assets against more intense weather like Superstorm Sandy is another way to make the business case. Recent research from TNC and Dow determined effective solutions to protect against these extreme weather risks is with investments in coastal ecosystems-mangroves, marshes, oyster reefs-that protect against flooding and hurricanes.
The Case for Nature
Concrete examples coupled with case studies is essential in stimulating change and convincing certainty-loving engineers that nature-based solutions are the way to go, says Wilson.
“The real strength of this tool is it’s evidence-based,” she says, noting the aforementioned case studies that cite the effectiveness of nature-based solutions. “These aren’t ideas but things companies are doing right now to solve their infrastructure problems, save money and also benefit the environment and community that they serve.”
Tercek agrees saying that it falls on the environmental community to produce this proof that will change the minds of the business space. “We can’t just wing it. We need good evidence,” he says, noting that in the past conservationists relied on more anecdotal proof rather than concreate cases and data.
Because while grey infrastructure may be more expensive and lacking in environmental friendliness, it’s a well-known and proven solution that business professionals are familiar with, Hawkins says. Robust proof of data and projects is required to demonstrate the performance of nature-based solutions as well as the economics.
And these are all elements the platform intends to address.
“This is developed by business, for business, to make business sense,” Wilson says. “It’s made to be relevant in making business decisions so we can drive better outcomes out of infrastructure choices.”
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