A natural remedy

6th June 2024

David Symons, FIEMA, director of sustainability at WSP, and IEMA’s Lesley Wilson, tell Chris Seekings why a growing number of organisations are turning to nature-based solutions to meet their climate goals

With sustainability professionals looking to address a growing number of environment and climate-related challenges, many are shunning established methods in favour of nature-based solutions.

From sustainable drainage to flood defences, these elegant solutions can offer a vast array of services while playing a key role in greenhouse gas management.

Lower costs, improved brand recognition, and meeting corporate targets and national regulations are also among the benefits of nature-based solutions, as well as helping tackle the escalating biodiversity crisis.

I sat down with David Symons, director of sustainability at WSP, and Lesley Wilson, IEMA’s policy and engagement lead for biodiversity and natural capital, to discuss the growing recognition of nature-based solutions.

Why is it so important to consider nature when looking to tackle climate change?

Wilson: Nature and carbon are intrinsically linked. We know that nature can absorb carbon, but if habitats are degraded then they don’t absorb so much, and they can actually leak carbon from soils.

Last year’s State of Nature report revealed that one in six species are threatened with extinction in the UK, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature has stated that nature-based solutions could contribute around 30% of what is needed to tackle climate change.

What are some examples of nature-based solutions?

Wilson: A report by the Woodland Trust identified that there are 213 million tonnes of carbon currently stored in UK trees, which can lock in 400 million plus tonnes of carbon, so you can see why they’re the poster child for nature-based solutions.

Other solutions come from peatlands, grasslands and crop lands, but I don’t think we’re suggesting businesses go off and start planting forests. Organisations can go into partnerships with charities, NGOs or private landowners who are working on nature-positive projects or are selling nature-based carbon credits.

The government’s Nature Recovery Network under Natural England has a website, www.projectsfornature.com, that links business with nature projects.

Symons: We’ve been working with Shropshire Wildlife Trust on a natural flood defence project to protect Telford, called the Marches Mosses. We restored a degraded area of peatland, which now acts as a natural defence, locks in carbon, and is a beautiful area for the local community to visit.

At the iconic Boulevard de la Croisette in Nice, we have been working with the city authorities to enhance the use of nature to provide shading. These are examples of elegant solutions, where the alternative would be hard-engineered solutions with concrete or air conditioning.

What are the key drivers behind businesses or local authorities turning to nature-based solutions?

Symons: Using nature as an offset solution is often the main way that nature and net zero are combined. But it shouldn’t be the only one.

New biodiversity net gain regulations, reporting frameworks and standards incentivise nature-based approaches. And of course nature-based solutions can also be lower cost and – for landowners at least – are a growing investment and revenue source. For companies, nature-based solutions can be great for brand and reputation as well.

Wilson: There are lots of opportunities, and being seen as a leader is one of them. If you’re part of a supply chain, other organisations will start looking towards you to be demonstrating that you’re doing the right thing for nature as well as managing your carbon. This is really about businesses understanding the risk of not tackling their carbon and nature together, because economically, they’re as important as each other.

“There are 213 million tonnes of carbon stored in UK trees, which can lock in 400 million plus tonnes of carbon”

What are the barriers to companies implementing these solutions?

Wilson: I think people see biodiversity as more complicated to measure than carbon, which puts some people off. But alongside nature initiatives such as those mentioned above, there are 48 designated areas in England for local nature recovery strategies, which organisations can go to for help to find nature-based solutions. The other thing that might put people off is that some carbon credits have been found not to work and nature credits are very new. But that shouldn’t put anybody off, so long as they go through a recognised organisation to buy credits. Organisations can buy ‘stacks’ of credits on the same land that provide nature benefits as well as carbon sequestration.

Symons: Nature can seem quite remote for many companies – a bit theoretical and a long way from day-to-day business. Overcome this by thinking about your whole value chain and practically where you impact nature – or where nature impacts you. Think about your supply chain. Your operations. And, of course, in the products or services you provide.

How does WSP address its impact on nature?

Symons: We’ve taken the Nature Positive Business Pledge (co-developed by IEMA), which is a public commitment we have made on biodiversity.

The largest opportunity we have is the advice we give to our clients. Growing our specialist biodiversity services and, of course, to include biodiversity as a key Future ReadyTM trend in all of the work we do with our clients – from business strategy to our built environment design work. Through this we aim to see the future more clearly and then challenge and inspire our people to design and advise for this future as well as for today. Biodiversity, climate resilience and net zero are three really important trends within this. Embedding this thinking across the company with strong case studies, training, tools and a can-do culture is the largest opportunity we have – innovating and helping our clients to take action in every project we do.

What advice, resources or guidance would businesses find useful when looking to implement nature-based solutions?

Wilson: IEMA has a network of members who have an interest in biodiversity and natural capital, so we created a buzzword guide because a lot of terms were being used interchangeably. We also have a really interesting paper about stacking and bundling, including carbon and nature credits, explaining how nature can provide multiple benefits simultaneously over time.

We’re about to produce an introductory guide to natural capital, talking about stocks of nature, and how you understand them. We have a webinar in June for generalists on biodiversity that should help them better understand the link between nature and carbon and get started with implementing solutions.

I’d advise organisations that whenever they’re looking at reducing carbon emissions, they start by considering natural solutions.

Symons: Like many topics, biodiversity and nature-based solutions can get very jargony and complex. A good starting point is to think in very plain English about how biodiversity is relevant across your operations. And to put a practical plan in place. Draw on others’ help for this if you need to – IEMA has some excellent networks and, of course, it’s the role of expert advisers to also help companies develop practical plans.


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