Nature offers multiple ways to tackle many of the issues we face as a result of a changing climate and our changing society. We have always sought help from nature, but only recently are we beginning to fully understand and appreciate the value of nature as a problem solver.

In Scotland, communities are suffering from issues such as flooding, poor water quality, physical and mental ill health and social inequality, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Greater investment in nature-based solutions, to protect and enhance our stocks of natural capital, can offer a long-term, cost effective and sustainable way to lessen the impact of climate change and societal pressures. For instance, improving urban green spaces and increasing urban nature is known to have a positive impact on our mental and physical well-being, while also capturing carbon and improving biodiversity.

The current absence of a common definition of ‘nature-based solutions’ is the initial hurdle. The most widely accepted definition comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which states:

Nature-based Solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.

The Scottish Government needs to formally adopt a definition and use it throughout policy, allowing practitioners and funders to better understand what projects are considered nature-based solutions and give confidence to those involved that their work is valued. A formally adopted definition will also avoid the term being used to justify or mask damaging interventions.

Following the adoption of an accepted definition, we need to ensure that we are working with nature in the most valuable way through effective, innovative funding mechanisms that incorporates public and private investment in a blended finance approach.

Through the work of groups such as the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital, it is becoming easier to value the restoration and protection of Scottish ecosystems for the services they provide to people, but there are still complexities. More evidence is needed on the investment potential of nature-based solution projects. With current uncertainties surrounding the potential returns, private investors can be reluctant to get involved.

For investors and stakeholders to be able to make better informed decisions, we firstly need better quality data to help quantify some of the costs/benefit ratios of protecting and enhancing natural capital through nature-based solutions. Clearly evidencing the value of benefits that flow from these nature based solutions will then attract private investment, and allow for advice and knowledge exchanges.

Natural capital accounts are one such approach, and can provide robust baseline data, as an important first step to facilitate comprehensive monitoring and to measure progress. Data on how nature-based solution initiatives are achieving targets will then inspire greater confidence in investors and encourage ongoing funding. Data can also be gathered through pilot projects, which can be supported by public funding and present low risk options for private investment to get the ball rolling. Attractive investment strategies should be demonstrated via engagement with market practitioners, environmental NGOs and scientific communities. We must, however also report any failures of projects to avoid making the same mistakes and inspire shared learning.

Secondly, a coherent change in policy is needed across multiple policy areas, including planning and land use, to include nature-based solutions as a necessary consideration, for example, so that new climate change adaptation projects consider nature-based solutions, rather than defaulting to grey infrastructure. This would pave the way for new, innovative investment opportunities as well as develop a portfolio of nature-based solution ideas. Policymakers should incentivise nature-based solutions at scale though supportive planning and licencing regulations and enforcement to avoid poor quality, possibly damaging projects.

The shift to providing landowners and managers payments to deliver ecosystem services through land use and management changes will go a long way to incentivising individual nature-based solution projects, but more needs to be done to scale this up. Through Regional Land Use Partnerships currently being piloted in Scotland, collaborative nature-based solution approaches can be encouraged across boundaries, that span catchment areas, and maximise the benefit for people and nature.

Additionally, nature-based solution projects offer possible ways to support a green recovery from COVID-19, providing jobs which require little training or initial investment, allowing a quick way for people to get back into work without having to retrain. To maximise the benefits of nature-based solutions in a green recovery we need to act fast. Projects need to be supported by government and properly funded as soon as possible to provide green jobs to areas worst hit by unemployment and to avoid investment in projects that do not align with climate ambitions.

The evidence is building to show that investment in nature-based solutions can offer multiple benefits and so provide sustainable returns. It is essential that Scottish Government make it more attractive to private funders through joined up policy and well-designed delivery mechanisms. A blended finance approach will deliver better value for taxpayers’ money, more sustainable outcomes and offer more reliable investment opportunities. The desire and capital is there, but government must inspire confidence to make nature-based solutions an attractive option for green investment and this must happen as soon as possible.

Bio: Rebekah Strong is a Nature Based Solutions Policy Adviser with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Contact rstrong@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

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