For as much as it may seem surprising NBS – Nature Based Solutions are already there. They are… Nature itself!
Indeed: the most advanced solution that humans are promoting as a remedy to human-made disaster is an old thing. Take the pledge from China to become Carbon Neutral by 2060: it seems that the most important tools to achieve it are NBS techniques, like reforestation.
Well: fact is that no man-made imitation of Nature will be as effective as Nature itself. For example, monocolture forests are no match to natural forests in term of biodiversity, for sure, but also in terms of carbon absorbing capacity (almost 1 to 3). And what about Oceans? The capacity of healthy Oceans to absorb CO2 is huge. But when we’ll have degraded the Earth’s oceans to huge acid dead pools, what should we do: build mono-fish artificial oceans somewhere?
The point is delicate, since we humans like to develop technology, convinced that we are all powerful and can resolve almost any problem. However, for any solution that we try to give to problems that we have caused to a hyper-complex system like climate change, we create more problems than we solve.
Offsetting carbon emission by buying planting-projects quotas is quite popular and it pleases Communication and Marketing people. Something which already raises a red flag for sustainability strategies. Caution: supporting reforestation projects has nothing wrong in itself. But for a business it is a cheap way to skip the problem of GHG emission in itself.
If your company is a GHG massive emitter this is a serious problem for at least two reasons:
CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) is another favorite of people who want to build business on disgrace. The technology exists, in some variations on the same theme. However it has not yet been proved to be economically sustainable. Besides, the proposed solutions to storage are still very problematic: for one no guarantee that the gas will stay forever in storage locations. A lot of money and energy are needed to capture the CO2 that we have emitted in excess in the last century and still emit in quantity that Nature cannot absorb.
As a result the wisest business decision to improve sustainability of a company’s regarding GHG is not to buy more offset but to improve efficiency of processes.
In the meantime the natural capacity of the ecosystems to neutralize the effects of human activity is being systematically destroyed. Deforestation is one. Pollution, emissions that cause degradation fostering a downward spiral effect (for instance the reduction of ice coverage that is due to warming and diminishes albedo effect from ice caps). Pressure on food chains also has its effects since, for instance, overfishing in certain areas generates a chain effect that degrades the marine ecosystem. Or shrimp farms destroying mangroves, which cause alteration in coastal ecosystems that bring disastrous effects too. There is no limit to the problems we are capable of causing to our spaceship.
Therefore, even if we may present (human-made) NBS as a brilliant way to address the climate and ecological emergencies (also human-made), the best way is to preserve Nature itself. This is a very much needed cultural shift for the business world. For decades, conservationists and ecologists have been the “muleta” (Matador’s red cloth) agitated in the face of business to enrage it.
Enlightened entrepreneurs like Ray Anderson, late CEO of Interface, started to look for fruitful alliances with the environmental experts, pushing their sustainability effort fast forward. This happened with a lot of benefits for the environment and also for the company itself, which became more and more profitable along the way to “Mount Sustainability” as Ray called it. Since then, very interesting “Nature Based” approaches have been developed, like Biomimicry®, bio based processes and materials and so on. With some excellent small scale results and a lot of confusion – for instance “biodegradable” or “compostable” are today some of the most misinterpreted and maliciously used concepts in B2C marketing.
Today the challenge is even bigger, since too few businesses have converted to sustainability strongly and quickly enough to slow the pace of ecological degradation. Solutions cannot be only “Based” on Nature: certainly not in the sense of poorly imitated initiatives like replanting trees in barren areas. There is a whole economic model to reinvent. It needs be based on Nature in ways to preserve the resources of our ecosphere as they are, using totally cyclical processes and make use of renewable energy sources. Bio based processes and materials can be part of this approach as long as they achieve the objective of a neutral impact on natural resources. Principle must be: what is taken away is returned or remains in the cycle forever and is treated with 100% renewable energy.
However, this isn’t enough: we need to give Nature time and room to renew its resources. Large areas need be left alone, untouched so that in decades complex ecosystems may develop in the perfect balance that only natural evolution achieves. Deforestation and any over-exploitation of Nature’s resources have to stop if we want the ecosystem to be fit for human life for the future generations. Even for some already living.
Consequently there is a fundamental question that we need ask ourselves: how much stuff do we really need? So far the objective of economy has been “Growth”. Unqualified growth has led to increasing production of goods, use of energy, exploitation of resources. But what about the quality of human life? Depression is the second cause of premature disability or death (DALY WHO Index). Conflicts caused by natural resources like mines or water sources are spreading and getting harsher. Still more than 3 million children die every year of hunger in a world that wastes between 30 and 35% of its food production. A very poor score for a “developed” society.
We must transition not only to an economy based on sustainability, Nature based solutions or not. We must transition to a society based on the satisfaction of human Basic Needs (See my book Sustainable Leadership here). Satisfying human needs does not necessarily come by the sale of goods: this is a fact. Now business leaders must ask the question to their teams: do their organizations really need go on as usual? Can’t they find better ways to address customer needs? Servitization is an emerging trend in manufacturing and it is no surprise. There are many more!
In conclusion, I can safely say that this is a time when we must go beyond Nature Based Solutions. Preserving Nature must be a primary goal, as if we were a submarine crew preserving air. There is a lot of knowledge already at hand. More is being developed almost daily that can help along this path. Manufacturing and sale of goods must be done only when necessary and according to strict circularity processes. Human needs must be the focus of any policy and strategy. Innovating with courage and integrity along these lines will reserve pleasant surprises. For starters a happier population, a healthier one and more widespread prosperity, wellbeing and peace.
In the meantime people like the Author of this article will have a lot of fun helping organizations take on the challenge. So many opportunities lie in this path to the new paradigm. I just can’t wait to sit with the next company in the pursuit of embedded sustainability in their strategy and operations.