This post was originally published by Business Green.
The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and indicators show persistent decline. It will take all hands on deck to reverse this worrying trend which will affect our national wellbeing and economy.
Private investment in positive actions, like planting more trees and restoring peatlands and wetlands, will have a big role to play and governments are pushing for it. In England, the government has proposed targets for private nature investment of £500m a year by 2027 and £1bn a year by 2030. Scotland also has an initiative aiming to raise a £1bn of private investment in nature.
Some companies are already starting to invest, such as the collaboration between B&Q and the Woodland Trust to restore habitat in North Yorkshire, recently reported in Business Green. And this is a trend that has been growing for some years as businesses see the benefits, with more and more catchment management approaches being used by water companies, voluntary carbon offsetting schemes and the forthcoming introduction of biodiversity net gain for building developments.
The rise in private money spent on environmental land projects can cause controversy though. Some natural capital projects, such as woody dams to prevent flooding, aren’t very noticeable. But others, like tree planting, can radically change the feel of an area, with examples of corporations buying large areas of farmland at inflated prices to plant trees for carbon offsetting. Local people have understandably expressed concern about how powerless they are in the face of these changes which are being imposed on them to suit corporate ends.
Changes to land use are only going to increase in the coming years, as both private and government investment to tackle climate change and nature decline ramps up. The potential for more conflicts with locals is clear. But it isn’t inevitable. Private funded nature and climate focused projects can be done in ways that also benefit people.
One way this can happen is when local communities own the land and have power over how it is used and managed. Although there is overwhelming public support for action on the environment, people often don’t know how they can make a difference. But buying land can overcome this. Communities in Scotland have been given the right to raise the money to buy land of local significance before it is put on the open market. There are several examples of this being done, for instance the Langholm Initiative, where the local community successfully bought 10,500 acres of the Buccleuch Estate, in two purchases in 2021 and 2022, to develop as a nature reserve.
Community ownership of land won’t always be possible or desirable, but businesses can take steps to ensure local communities still benefit. Community funds set up by renewable energy projects and controlled by locals are one model for sharing financial benefit which could translate well to natural capital projects. In some cases, these have distributed millions of pounds to local causes and projects for the people living around wind or solar farms. Opportunities for local people to own shares in a project, as also happens in community renewables projects, is another possibility.
Because opposition from local communities can delay or even kill off a project, businesses should be involving communities more in decisions made about what happens to their local landscape. Not doing so can end in tears. In 2020, after years of development, the multi-million pound Summit2Sea nature restoration project in mid Wales was forced back to the drawing board. It returned its funding and had to start again with a process of community engagement, having initially failed to secure the support of local farmers.
Striking the right balance can be tricky. Community involvement has to be meaningful, but people lead busy lives with limited time and head space to engage, so it has to be proportionate. Integrated Local Delivery is a good model for partnerships on environmental projects because it values and harnesses local knowledge and resources.
For example, instead of a business buying a piece of land to store water to avoid flooding, a facilitator might bring together an engaged group of farmers offering space to decide on the measures to use, like woody dams on streams, supported with expertise from local and national charities and government bodies. Local volunteers can also carry out the work. Not only is this likely to be cheaper, it will also create a more resilient solution in the long term that has benefits for nature and community building.
Facilitation needed for good community involvement and the time taken to build relationships can add to upfront project costs. But harnessing all the knowledge, ideas and energy of local people also has huge advantages for the projects, not least because it avoids costly and embarrassing local opposition. Purchasing land may seem an easy solution for a business buying into environmental outcomes, but unless local communities are treated as essential partners in the project, there’s a risk that companies won’t get what they want out of it.
Later this year, Green Alliance will be issuing some guidance for businesses and the government on how to make community engagement in natural capital projects a success.