skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


Nature-based solutions (NbS) are ways of working with natural systems to both strengthen them while solving broader problems such as climate change but also health, social inclusion, and more. 

The opportunity that NbS offer to help tackle the climate crises, whilst also addressing the collapse in biodiversity, has gained increasing profile and attention. This is particularly with respect to the role of NbS in reducing emissions associated with land use and to enhancing natural climate sinks but can also include projects designed to deliver increased climate resilience.   

However, there remains significant confusion as to what exactly ‘counts’ as an NbS, how to deliver them successfully and what their exact potential is to contribute to solving climate change, alongside wider societal goals. Such lack of clarity has permitted the misuse of NbS for greenwashing by companies that drive climate change, and an overemphasis on tree planting as a ‘silver bullet’ solution.


A range of NbS definitions exist. The  IUCN defines NbS as, ‘Actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.’ The Nature-based Solutions Initiative defines NbS as ‘working with nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human well-being and biodiversity.’ The European Commission defines nature-based solutions as, ‘Solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.’ 

While at the heart of these is a clearly discernible common concept, different framings and emphasises have generated confusion about the boundaries of the idea. 

At CISL we believe that a NbS should protect and support nature whilst providing a solution to a major issue. We also believe that solution should deliver real and tangible benefits to people, nature and climate, and while it may only be focused on one of these elements, such as climate, it should still deliver improvements across the board.

More important than the definition, however, is the focus on real world implementation - any NbS project must be delivered with adequate accountability and safeguards including clarity on the goal and how that goal is to be achieved. Unfortunately, this is often not the case today – partly because there is no consensus on the standards that such projects should meet.  

Opportunities of incorporating NbS in a corporate climate strategy

Given this lack of clarity, why might businesses adopt NbS? If we examine the current proposals around climate action, there are a number of benefits and opportunities that can be identified for businesses who deploy well-designed and well-implemented NBS projects. Companies that invest in NbS that address forest, land, and agriculture emissions within their supply chains will potentially see several benefits directly to their business from:

  • creating stronger, more resilient and reliable supply chains, for example, due to increased climate resilience benefits. 
  • reducing reputational and regulatory risks while responding to demands from investors, consumers and regulators.    
  • increasing their access to capital at preferential rates through sustainability linked loans.
  • improving their relations with and support from local communities. 

While each of these benefits are possible, they all rely on effective, well managed and credible projects, and in poorly managed projects can quickly turn into negative impacts. Similarly, companies that invest in NbS beyond their own supply chains will, if they follow the right safeguards and take a holistic, science-based approach, be able to: 

  • increase their climate action by engaging in carbon removal and emission reductions which can compensate for emissions already in the atmosphere as well as neutralise residual emissions that are currently not possible to eliminate. 
  • demonstrate leadership and action that goes above and beyond setting a science-based emissions reduction target.  

And all companies that deliver well run NbS projects have the potential to generate win-wins for society, such as enhancing sustainable rural livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, which will also be positive for their ‘licence to operate.’ 

Challenges of incorporating NbS in a corporate climate strategy 

However, there are a number of business, political, economic, and scientific challenges that need to be tackled in order to effectively implement NbS. For example:

  • poorly designed or implemented NbS projects are highly likely to have significant negative impacts on people, nature and climate, whether creating local biodiversity loss, reducing appetite for emissions reductions or driving tension with and damage to local communities.  
  • NbS to climate change often rely on enhancing natural carbon sinks but there is an active debate about the value of this work compared to projects storing carbon in geological carbon sinks making it hard to identify the priorities for action. 
  • NbS are complex projects with multiple benefits, often undertaken in specific contexts. This means that they often have internal trade-offs. Clarity about what the potential benefits are and how trade-offs are resolved is essential. However, the urgency in acting on climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressing sustainability challenges requires swift action, which can make good understanding of and planning for these trade-offs challenging.
  • whilst the IUCN Global Standard provides clear parameters for defining NbS and a common framework to help benchmark progress, there is currently no commonly accepted basis on which a government agency, municipality or private company can systematically assess the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of a particular NbS. Some NbS have simple and relatively easily assessed goals (improved drainage, reduced flood risk, etc), but others are more difficult (additional reduced carbon emissions) and in the latter case this is a particular issue.     
  • poorly designed or out-dated regulation can prevent businesses from implementing NbS, rather than enable them, and support their clarity, accountability and effectiveness. 

Find out more about our work with partners to deliver a net-positive future nature-positive future