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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

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October 2021 - Catherine Weller, from CISL’s Centre for Business Transformation, explains that, when it comes to going ahead with nature-based solution projects, company decision-making processes need to be fit for purpose.

Nature-based solutions (NbS) is a hot topic in the climate action debate. There is growing acknowledgement that the nature and climate crises need to be addressed together, even in the face of controversies around the use of carbon credits to finance action to tackle nature loss. While net zero strategies are increasingly a driver for business decisions, harnessing nature to help meet corporate climate goals or mitigate other risks is largely uncharted territory for most businesses and their senior leadership teams. Clearly the relatively low uptake by companies means investing in nature-based solutions is far from business as usual. Nature-based solutions can be a great tool to deliver multiple wins, so unlocking significantly increased corporate investment will be essential to help to scale them up to deliver a net-zero, nature-positive world.

Nature-based projects take many different forms. They can tackle specific problems connected to a company’s operations and value chain, for example, reducing future risks of flood damage to a manufacturing site or improving the resilience of a supply chain through better soil health and availability of production-boosting natural pollinators and pest controlling biodiversity. There are also usually plenty of co-benefits. For example, if a company has to deal with a lot of wastewater, then the creation of constructed wetlands not only cleans the water but also provides a habitat for flora and fauna and a recreational space for people. In addition, enriching nature tends to enhance an area’s carbon sink potential resulting in a climate benefit too. Intuitively, obtaining these benefits, while also contributing positively to the company’s nature and climate goals, would seem highly worthwhile. Of course, care must still be taken to ensure the project delivers real and tangible benefits to people, nature and climate and this requires smart and sensible planning, design and implementation.

When nature-based solutions provide so many perceived positives, why has there not yet been a concerted shift from traditional ‘grey infrastructure’? Experience from the frontline is that nature-based solutions projects presented to investment committees are not always welcomed with open arms. The stumbling blocks might be external, for example, poorly designed or outdated regulations that do not enable or support businesses from effectively implementing nature-based solutions. But other challenges might be internal – related to processes built on assumptions that don’t suit nature-based projects. And, the good news is that agency to resolve the internal stumbling blocks often rests with the company itself.

Some challenges are cultural and will require senior leadership and wider change to overcome them. In some sectors, a thorny challenge is the mindset shift necessary to commit to a location or a supplier in a way that flies in the face of their short-term contracting practices. For others, it is the discomforting fact that nature-based solutions come with inherent uncertainties and longer timelines for results to appear (especially when compared with conventional approaches to mitigating risks). Projects might face decision-making criteria which do not take into account all of the benefits (some more tangible than others) a nature-based solution would bring over time. With the evidence base still being developed, it’s understandable that trying to put a number on those benefits is tricky. Further, companies might be challenged by the need to concede some control over the timeline because they will need to work with partners, perhaps even competitors, on the ground.

What internal factors might make individual corporate decision-makers reticent to take the plunge to put money into a nature-based solution project? As with most investments, there are a range of internal actors who will need to support and enable investments in nature-based projects - for example, from the finance, operations, supply chain engagement, procurement, and marketing teams- who will all have different questions and, probably, specific performance targets to meet. Where these are pulling in different directions, this also needs to be addressed.

For any company considering nature-based solutions, it makes sense to anticipate these (and other) internal challenges linked to the nature of nature-based projects. It’s worth exploring if the decision-making process is ‘fit for nature-based solutions’, and pre-emptively removing unnecessary roadblocks. To scale nature-based solutions we need to make sure that getting the green light for that first nature-based project is less painful for every company.

CISL believes in enabling the business community to be more comfortable investing in nature. This is why CISL has started a research project, funded by We Mean Business, to support the transformation of internal processes and cut through misunderstanding about nature-based projects among various crucial internal decision-makers. The research focuses on nature-based solutions projects that are in a company’s value chain; in carbon terms, this means ‘insetting’ projects, rather than those that generate carbon reductions outside a company’s emissions footprint (often linked to credits known as ‘offsets’).

The first phase of the project is to gather insights about the decision-making criteria nature-based projects face and how companies are overcoming any internal challenges as they move forward with exploring and implementing nature-based projects in their value chain. These findings will be turned into a tool to help companies anticipate such challenges and learn from ways others have overcome them – in other words, to become ‘NbS ready’. We’d be glad to hear from anybody with relevant stories to tell about getting internal green light on a nature-based solutions project.

Register today for our upcoming webinar - Getting the green light for nature-based projects: corporates overcoming the fear of the uncertain and unknown

Follow #GetNBSReady on Twitter to keep track of this project’s progress.


Find out more about CISL’s work with partners across business government and finance to deliver a nature positive future.

About the author

Catherine Weller


Catherine joined CISL as a Programme Manager in the Business and Nature team. She leads the Natural Capital Impact Group to assist businesses in sustaining and restoring the natural world and its resources through its strategies and operating practices.

After a few years working at a law firm and specialising in environmental law, in 2011 Catherine moved to the environmental NGO ClientEarth. At ClientEarth, she led a number of litigation and advocacy workstreams ranging from revising the EU’s sustainable public procurement rules to enforcing nature protection law in Polish forests, and for the last 3 years was Head of Programme for its work on ocean health and regulation of harmful chemicals.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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