Implementation of Nature-based Solutions is rarely straightforward because of their inherent qualities: they are dynamic, multifunctional, innovative, and context-specific projects that depart from traditional practice and standards. For more than a decade, EcoShape has advanced knowledge development and spearheaded pilot projects to gain experience and build capacity for implementation. While progress has been demonstrated, there is still much work ahead to encourage broader uptake of Nature-based Solutions.
Enthusiasm is growing in the international community for Nature-based Solutions. The science and policy worlds demonstrate how these projects can solve numerous societal challenges, from climate mitigation to flood protection, alleviating heat stress, and responding to the biodiversity crisis. There is more work ahead to shift the paradigm from monofunctional gray infrastructure to Nature-based Solutions. This roundtable addresses the question: what barriers prevent the implementation of Nature-based Solutions on a large scale, and how can they be overcome?
Chantal van Ham: The primary issue is that natural capital is hardly part of the equation in our economic system.
Johan Pennekamp: When talking to people in the financial sector, my first thought is that we do not speak the same language. They do not understand us, and we do not understand them either. Risk is everything in the field of finance. Starting from risk, our private finance partners calculate the return on investment. They look for handles on what the future of our solutions may bring, yet we are unable to achieve more precision in our predictions. There are many examples already in which a public financier safeguards the private financier to remove the vulnerability of the private partner in their return on investment.
Oshani Perera: Without government subsidies, there would be no Tesla and no SpaceX. We tend to forget that many initiatives are backed by public money. Government plays an important role as an innovation leader and broker. We are trying to improve the predictability and certainty of Nature-based Solutions to reduce risk. There are international standards and established processes through which we value an asset. If you consider a building in Indonesia and a similar building in Holland, Geneva, or Denmark, we know how to value each of them. However, comparing similarly sized wetlands in Sri Lanka, Holland, and Mexico is a different story. The Sri Lankan and Mexican wetlands share similar latitudes, but the Dutch wetland does not. They will not perform in the same way. We valuate ecosystem services across different geographies and publish the information to demystify this field and bring a finer grain of predictability and certainty to Nature-based Solutions. Our work is urgent. There is no way that we can accomplish any goals regarding the Paris Agreement, biodiversity, or sustainable development without nature-based infrastructure.
Henk Nieboer: Predictability is very important to the broader acceptance of Nature-based Solutions. Since organizations currently define predictability according to their present worldviews, they expect Nature-based Solutions to resemble traditional infrastructure. Yet nature is unpredictable. We are obligated to advise asset managers on the ways in which Nature-based Solutions behave, and they must adapt their management practices to these dynamics.
Oshani Perera: Another issue is that nature-based infrastructure does not generate revenue in the traditional sense that a built asset does. It saves money instead. Therefore, we need to use or treat this future savings as present-day cash flow. That requires a shift in the way we run traditional asset valuations.
Virinder Sharma: First of all, financiers consider Building with Nature a
new technology. They foresee the program needs additional work,
so the risk element increases. Second, floodplains and basin-wide approaches entail longer timescales, whereas our institutions are geared to deliver projects in roughly five to seven years. And traditionally there is one department to deal with, say, water engineering, which makes it easy. There is a wider range of stakeholders for Nature-based Solutions, and many departments within the government alone, because that is how watersheds and basins are controlled. The nature-based component also comes with local stakeholders as well as land and resource owners. Matching the project cycles of Nature-based Solutions with those of banks and multilateral development institutions is another big challenge. For them, performance is about not only predictability but also operations and maintenance. Nature-based Solutions that require more attention are perceived to require greater costs.
Lisa Beyer: Our streets are designed with a six-inch curb to manage a hundred-year storm. That may once have been the standard, but today we cannot expect the same hundred-year storm. We have flashier storms that happen much less often but much more intensely. Changeability is what makes nature such an amazing tool. We can design a greenway to manage a certain volume of precipitation. Then we can deepen it. We can widen it at very little cost compared to building a new subsurface tank. Nature has this ability to stretch a little bit and has much different costs over time than retrofitted or new gray infrastructure.
Kathy Baughman McLeod: Nature-based Solutions play the long game. Urban forestry does not cover the operation and maintenance of a forest to make sure it performs at its highest level. Scaling up is one of the most challenging problems and best overcome when there is a local solution that can be adopted by local people. Our focus on Nature-based Solutions is to create a systemic finance and risk approach that allows access to capital for investments made at a local or regional level and also understands the financial impact of avoided loss. The benefits of avoided loss that Nature-based Solutions can provide are substantial. Look at the use of risk transfer of insurance products combined with finance that can put Nature-based Solutions or hybrid solutions on par with traditional infrastructural solutions. Any opportunity for cash flow around Nature-based Solutions creates a much easier opportunity for upscaling.
Joost de Ruig: I am proud of the Dutch tradition of coping with sea level rise. We have standards at a national level, and ongoing commitment to these standards makes our work easier. It is embedded in law and a part of our genes. Thirty years ago, we began the dynamic maintenance of our coastline via beach nourishment or foreshore management. Now these large-scale projects are embedded in our policies. We have funding. We now also work on our river systems. Room for the River not only raises the dikes but gives more room for the water to flow. These solutions must be tried. Not every project is successful, but we can learn from each to implement better solutions after.
Isao Endo: The lack of codes or standards for Nature-based Solutions poses many implementation challenges, especially in developing countries. Such countries do not often have the standards that would promote implementation. We try to support Nature-based Solutions not only at the project level but also at the policy level. We must do more to reform and improve the existing regulations, building standards, and codes. Without standards, it will be difficult to scale Nature-based Solutions.
Chantal van Ham: In July 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature launched a global standard for Nature-based Solutions, which is meant to provide a framework to ensure quality and credibility.
Kathy Baughman McLeod: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been drafting a plan to defend Miami-Dade County from sea level rise with a proposal that has had three years of stakeholder engagement. The plan received immense community input requesting Nature-based Solutions, with growing momentum over those three years. But the plan was recently released and contains almost no Nature-based Solutions. That is a good example of the potential for changing public sentiment in a county with three million people. It also reflects the hard-wired instincts of an institution like the Army Corps of Engineers for hard-engineered solutions. The community knows Nature-based Solutions are the best option, yet despite all the knowledge, guidebooks, technical assistance, and cost-benefit analyses, implementation is not yet standard, nor ubiquitous.
Chantal van Ham: My hope is standards will help different actors not only in the private sector, or in the finance sector, but also among governments to provide good references for upscaling. One example is the climate bond in Paris, which was launched to fund energy and climate projects and to which investors have oversubscribed. The bond has mainly supported restoration activities and also has strong community involvement. It is a successful case of a city leveraging private investment. Such initiatives can help provide and promote additional legal frameworks for action from different stakeholders, in the same way that the European Investment Bank no longer invests in fossil fuels. If the EU can lead the way in establishing these types of criteria, there might also be opportunities to mobilize more financing toward Nature-based Solutions.
Virinder Sharma: Can we learn from what is now happening in the COVID-19 pandemic? We are learning exactly what evidence-based policy is, and how it can impact institutions, financing, and our behaviors and incentives, which is so critical. A lot of people are not yet talking about green recovery, building back better, or building back greener. Ten years ago, there was so much work on environmental economics, but we were never able to push through anything substantial. Our value systems and means of examining co-benefits must be taken into account. That is why we end up debating the standards at length. However, we cannot easily prescribe standards for ecosystems. Ecosystems behave like ecosystems: they resist standardization and evolve continuously. We need to change the discourse. It is the right time now that everyone is involved in discussions around the green recovery, with emphasis on climate change adaptation. It is a question of marketing. Some may call it disaster risk reduction. Some may call it environmental sustainability. Others might package it as biodiversity and conservation. Climate change is one issue where at least policy-makers are on board. We spent ten years pushing for biodiversity without success; evidently something is still missing there.
Kathy Baughman McLeod: The environment that we find ourselves in is unprecedented. We navigate the convergence and interrelated threats of COVID-19, its economic impact, the increased intensity of storms, more rain, more drought, more heat, more fire, more pollution, racial inequality, social injustice. The crises we face cannot be solved one by one. At this time, the need for long-term thinking and social sensitivity are so important. We must be socially sensitive as we carve a path forward for Nature-based Solutions to achieve multiple benefits, beyond mere risk reduction. The complexity of where we are today means we need every sector involved. We cannot move forward without having everyone at the table.
Isao Endo: One key factor of successful projects is to engage local people. In a flood risk management project that I support, we are trying to integrate Nature-based Solutions into the design, especially through watershed management: the creation of retention ponds and the restoration of wetlands as a buffer zone. These green assets or infrastructure would require longterm maintenance. It would be good to engage local residents in such an activity, as it serves the most immediate beneficiaries of the project.
Joost de Ruig: In the Netherlands, it is unlikely that we would select an approach without local stakeholders. It is not possible anymore. Community engagement is not always easy, but in this century, we need to involve all kinds of local stakeholders.
Kathy Baughman McLeod: A big part of building trust is to have everyone at the table and put some skin into the game, as we say, meaning that we pledge either time or money to show our commitment. Trust takes time. There are proxies for trust, which include following through, communication, commitment, and funding for small pieces of a project while raising larger funds.
Lisa Beyer: I see three main challenges for scaling Nature based-Solutions in cities. The first is jurisdictional ownership, with fractured responsibility such that operation and funding are really complex. Cities were set up to ensure the delivery of public services. We now have silos: the parks department delivers parks, the streets department delivers streets, and the school department manages our schools. The in-between gets lost in this categorization. Second, Nature-based Solutions are long-term visions that do not align with election cycles. They are living landscapes that require operations and maintenance in perpetuity. Leadership is a critical part of moving these projects forward. Administrations change and staff moves on, making it hard to keep momentum for any particular goal. This is why we often see that successful projects were led by a designer committed to see the project through. Last, we do not yet have the tools to collaborate at the level required for this work to succeed. We need to think about one city or one community integrally and bring all goals and desires together.
Kathy Baughman McLeod: I cannot emphasize the importance of communication enough. It means a lot to say “we care” to stakeholders. The early declaration of intent and subsequent communication of how things are progressing, even if they are not moving, can go a long way. There is science behind that. Communication is an important piece, and we often underestimate it.
Henk Nieboer: To reconcile “no time to lose” with “we need time to get somewhere,” we must start experimenting. Failure is an opportunity to learn along the way. Developing the complete science before implementation takes a long time. Starting somewhere, experimenting, and learning from the outcome is very valuable. Our program in Demak is
a good example. We built low-tech structures there to stimulate sedimentation. Together with the local community, we learned quite a lot over the years. Experimentation reconciles the need for immediate action with the need to develop quality products.
Lisa Beyer: I am currently working on a Joint Benefits Authority. The idea is to provide a governance and finance tool for cities, where different agencies within the city come together to jointly plan, fund, implement, and operate large-scale resilient infrastructure. Nature binds these infrastructures together; the aim is to provide cleaner water, cooler air, improved habitat, even slower traffic for safer streets. This mechanism will allow city departments to come together around a neighborhoodscale piece of resilient infrastructure, with a single team that represents all agencies. The community can be brought in as an equal decisionmaker. It is based on the concept of a master developer—for public services and public infrastructure— allowing for financial schemes (in bonds or loans) and a lot more flexibility in terms of timing so that projects can be prioritized across different agencies. Systems for budgeting and capital planning have been in place for over a century. All of a sudden, local governments now face massive new costs related to resilience and adaptation. While protecting the health and safety of communities is part of their mission, there has been no influx of funds for implementation. That is why we need a more integrated approach and stacked benefits. When we talk about reducing health impacts and improving quality of living, can some of that funding also be invested in the physical environment and not only in services? Opportunities emerge when we can define the beneficiaries.