From Nature-Based Solutions to Nature-Based Enterprises

Nature-based solutions (NBS) have been widely recognised by governments in climate change and biodiversity strategies. But significant barriers exist for their large-scale implementation. Esmee Kooijman and Siobhan McQuaid, together with Profs. Mary-Lee Rhodes and Marcus J. Collier from Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and Francesco Pilla from University College Dublin, take the first step in a thousand-mile march toward market development of the sector by proposing a classification for organisations delivering NBS and categorising their economic activities.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) have been widely recognised by governments in climate change and biodiversity strategies. But significant barriers exist for their large-scale implementation. Esmee Kooijman and Siobhan McQuaid, together with Profs. Mary-Lee Rhodes and Marcus J. Collier from Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and Francesco Pilla from University College Dublin, take the first step in a thousand-mile march toward market development of the sector by proposing a classification for organisations delivering NBS and categorising their economic activities.

By CoBS Editor Megha Sureshkar. Related research: Innovating with Nature: From Nature-Based Solutions to Nature-Based Enterprises, Mdpi.

There is no question that the Earth is a giving planet. Its ‘gifts’ – natural ecosystems – provide services of crucial importance to human well-being by sustaining the quality of air, water, and soils, providing resources and energy, regulating the climate, and reducing the impact of natural hazards. Yet, human activities have significantly altered ecosystems, and biodiversity loss ranks among the most pressing issues we face today. The world lost an estimated USD 4 – 20 trillion per year in ecosystem services from 1997 to 2011, as a result of global land-use change.

What can be done to improve this alarming situation? Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) have a key role to play in turning the tide, by working hand in hand with nature, rather than against it.

Bridging the gap

NBS protect, effectively manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems. In doing so, NBS generate a wide range of benefits locally and for society as a whole. These actions improve ecosystem functions and biodiversity, and decrease the vulnerability of climate change effects by increasing resilience for adaptation and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. For example, stewardship of terrestrial ecosystems and improvement of agricultural methods have the potential to provide up to 30% of the greenhouse gas mitigation required until 2030 to keep global warming to less than 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels.

Examples of NBS include ecosystem-based adaptation and mitigation, eco-disaster risk reduction, green/blue infrastructure, and natural climate solutions. The benefits of implementing NBS to solve environmental challenges – as opposed to traditional approaches – have led to the adoption of the concept by policymakers, though not universally and to varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, implementation of NBS on the scale needed to contribute to these societal challenges requires the involvement of all stakeholders. NBS are increasingly viewed as a means to diversify and transform business for sustainable development, and the private sector could contribute to upscaling of NBS.

However, what kind of organisations contribute to the delivery of NBS? And what kind of activities do they undertake? As the market development is still in its infancy, industry classifications of sectors of economic and financial activity – Statistical Classification of Economic Activities in the European Community (NACE), for instance – do not account for NBS-related activities. As such, the research team and her co-researchers address this gap by exploring the characteristics and activities of organisations supporting the delivery of NBS using 174 data points collected by a literature review and an enterprise survey.

Enter the matrix

In order to capture all relevant types of organisations delivering NBS, the researchers propose a categorisation based on the criteria: First, engagement in economic activity, i.e., sell products or services for a given price on a market; and second, the use of nature. The fruit of this effort is summarised in the typology proposed below.

Table. Types of establishment delivering nature-based solutions.

In essence, Nature-based enterprises – the most common organisation type uncovered – use nature as a core element of their product/service offering for the planning, delivery and/or stewardship of NBS and engage in economic activity. For example, community benefit enterprises specifically involve communities in governance and management of forests, to provide direct and indirect benefits for the public and the community with additional objectives such as conservation, poverty alleviation, development, cultural revitalisation, and political empowerment. Another case in point – nature-based tourism enterprises – cover a large range of services in the wilderness or related to wilderness, for example, accommodation and adventure activities, while providing benefits to nature conservation.

Nature-based organisations use nature as a core element of their product/service offering for the planning, delivery and/or stewardship of NBS but do not engage in economic activity. Examples of nature-based organisations include public-private companies, community groups and network organisations in forestry, community gardens and tourism.

Nature-based products and services may be offered by enterprises or organisations where nature is not a core element of their product/service offering. For instance, there are privately-owned forestry enterprises engaged in the development and utilisation of forest resources for timber production. As part of their management, they might contribute to conservation.

Once the types of establishment identified, the research team proceed to go one step deeper and explore the economic activities of organisations delivering nature-based solutions. 11 categories of economic activities are put forward, 7 in which nature is used directly, and 4 where it is used indirectly.

Direct nature-based activities

Nature-based solutions (NBS) have been widely recognised by governments in climate change and biodiversity strategies. But significant barriers exist for their large-scale implementation. Esmee Kooijman and Siobhan McQuaid, together with Profs. Mary-Lee Rhodes and Marcus J. Collier from Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and Francesco Pilla from University College Dublin, take the first step in a thousand-mile march toward market development of the sector by proposing a classification for organisations delivering NBS and categorising their economic activities.

To begin with, activities under ecosystem creation, restoration, and management focus on the conservation and protection of not only natural ecosystems, but also urban ecosystems, such as allotments, community gardens and derelict areas.

  • NBS for public and urban spaces involve urban regeneration projects in addition to green areas, parks, gardens and playgrounds, green infrastructure, and urban forestry.
  • NBS for green buildings relate to solutions for air purification and water retention, such as green living roofs, and enterprises are involved in different activities around the design, implementation, and maintenance of their products.
  • NBS for water management and treatment include natural solutions for the management of flood and surface water, in rural, peri-urban, and urban contexts, and wastewater management and treatment, and resource recovery.
  • Activities under sustainable agriculture and food production encompass agroforestry, regenerative agriculture and horticulture, beekeeping and natural plant and soil improvement.
  • Activities included under sustainable forestry and biomaterials use nature as a sustainable input for construction and manufacturing for buildings, industry, and products. Examples are the manufacturing and application of biomaterials for construction of agricultural and irrigation systems (such as hydroponics), growing algae for food products, and sustainable forestry.
  • Finally, sustainable tourism and health and well-being cover eco-tourism activities and outdoor workshops for wellbeing purposes, such as forest bathing.

While comparing the aforementioned categories with their NACE counterparts, the fact that the latter misses the nature-based and sustainability focus at the heart of the economic activities, was brought to the fore.

Indirect nature-based activities

Nature-based solutions (NBS) have been widely recognised by governments in climate change and biodiversity strategies. But significant barriers exist for their large-scale implementation. Esmee Kooijman and Siobhan McQuaid, together with Profs. Mary-Lee Rhodes and Marcus J. Collier from Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and Francesco Pilla from University College Dublin, take the first step in a thousand-mile march toward market development of the sector by proposing a classification for organisations delivering NBS and categorising their economic activities.

Initially, there are advisory services that include technical activities in the planning, design, implementation, and management of NBS, as well as social components, for example, community engagement. A second category covers education, research, and innovation activities focusing on knowledge collection and dissemination, and mainly comprise innovation and feasibility projects for NBS from environmental and social perspectives. Third, financial service enterprises offer services to businesses and individuals to finance ecosystem restoration projects, for example as a way to offset carbon impact, mainly in the form of reforestation. And lastly, activities under smart technology, monitoring and assessment of NBS use satellite imagery, environmental sensors, spatial tools, and data analytics for creating an inventory of tree species or analysing soil health, among others.

Once again, the closest NACE categories do not account for the level of detail of these activities, nor acknowledge the business models used.

Taking the next step

Through the study of the characteristics of organisations delivering NBS and the categorisation of their economic activities, the researchers assert that this sector should be considered in future policy as a stand-alone sector with significant potential to contribute to the EU goal of achieving a climate-neutral economy by 2050.

The recognition of nature-based enterprises as important actors in the implementation of nature-based solutions is an essential first step in market creation for the products and services they offer. And through them, we achieve a higher goal – of giving back to nature as many or even more gifts than we take from it.

Esmee Kooijman, Siobhan McQuaid, Mary-Lee Rhodes, Marcus J. Collier, Francesco Pilla

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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