While far from new, nature-based solutions (NbS) are once again gaining momentum - but why are they so critical at this point of crisis, and how are they creating opportunities to solve multiple challenges simultaneously? In the sixth of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series, Dr Sally Uren explores the latest in NbS and the interconnected nature of five key capitals –and calls on business to advocate for greater uptake and investment in these high-impact solutions.

Back in our pre-COVID world, scientists called for a ‘Global Deal for Nature to Solve Two Interlinked Crises, Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change’ by protecting and restoring half of the Earth’s lands and oceans.

At the time, there was lots of positive noise but no seismic shift in government policies.

There was certainly no discernible uptick in business interest.

Enter COVID-19, and a stark reality becomes clear: a zoonotic virus associated with illegal wildlife trading jumps from animal to human – triggering the closure of the largest economy in the world, with tentacles of economic disruption going on to grip the entire global economy. 

This dramatically demonstrates how everything is interconnected; planetary health equals human health equals economic health. Thriving natural systems underpin everything, which is why it’s heartening to see the current attention paid to Nature-Based Solutions (NbS).

NbS are defined by the IUCN as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems; that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.

Just as many of us are using lockdown to reconnect with nature, we’re seeing concerted moves by business, NGOs, political leaders and more to highlight its critical importance in understanding how we emerge from the pandemic into a more sustainable future. The newly launched Business for Nature coalition has mobilised an influential group of organisations – including the International Chamber of Commerce, WWF, We Mean Business, United Nations Global Compact, the IUCN, and of course Forum - to publish an open letter calling on CEOs to use their voice with political leaders and advocate for economic policies and packages that prioritise nature restoration.

In the business space, Unilever launched a €1bn Climate & Nature Fund, to be spent over the next decade, as part of an array of new sustainability commitments. Natura & Co has also upgraded its sustainability strategy, while Danone is publicly arguing how key this year remains for global efforts to restore and protect nature.

And then there’s the tech giants. Amazon’s $100M Right Now Climate Fund takes immediate action to remove or avoid carbon emissions through NbS, while the smaller pioneering brands are also taking action: Ecover has launched its rather wonderful ‘Fertilise the Future’ initiative ‘directing its coronavirus windfall to catalyse climate action through nature-based solutions’.

Beyond business, China and New Zealand are co-leading a coalition announced in December and focused on encouraging NbS in national climate plans. The European Green Deal promotes preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity with a focus on natural functions and the multi-benefits of nature.

And with a COVID-specific response in mind, Pakistan has launched a five-year tree-planting programme, linking NbS with job creation for day labourers facing unemployment.


But why is this so encouraging?

First. NbS open up pathways for solving multiple challenges simultaneously; we need this now more than ever, with time to avert the worst of the climate and biodiversity crises rapidly running out.
Second. NbS also remind us what we actually mean by ‘sustainability’ and shine a light on how this understanding is evolving.

For some, it means the full suite of environmental, social and economic challenges; for others, just the environment - with human rights being described as separate. The latter definition is extremely dangerous as the more we separate issues, the harder it is to drive systemic change. After all, it is not possible to transform the systems on which we rely by focusing on single issues in isolation.

The world doesn’t work that way, and neither should we. So, in our fast-paced, and currently highly-disrupted world, we of course need to look for new solutions, but also cast ourselves back to some long-established thinking…


A reminder of the Five Capitals

In 1996, Forum developed the pioneering Five Capitals Model, which provides a basis for understanding sustainability in terms of the economic concept of wealth creation - or ‘capital’. Any organisation or entire industry will use five types of capital to deliver its products or services. A sustainable organisation or industry will maintain and where possible enhance these stocks of capital assets, rather than deplete or degrade them.

In other words, a more sustainable future relies on us building both natural and human capital.

Five capitals model

Here’s the thing - financial capital has no real value of its own. It’s a measure of how well we build natural, human and social capital. After all, a business can’t successfully thrive on an otherwise dead planet.

After the 2008 economic crash, I heard a phrase repeated globally: ‘if nature was a bank, it would have been bailed out a long time ago’. The sentiment is consistent with the Five Capitals model, and for a long time, it made a lot of sense to me.

I now realise though, there is something missing. In order to effectively ‘bail out’ nature long-term, we must create the conditions in which natural and social capital can regenerate themselves.

This requires upfront investment, but also the reconfiguration of our now outdated underlying structures, flows and processes.


And that’s why I love NbS

These solutions act at specific leverage points to change systems. Consider regenerative techniques:

  • restoring soil health drives climate benefits through carbon sequestration and improves crop yields
  • reforestation improves biodiversity and can create new sources of economic prosperity for vulnerable communities.

The list could go on, and on.

Where do we go from here?

Momentum around NbS is growing and Forum sees these solutions as central to fuelling a Transform trajectory– one possible pathway from the pandemic that will ultimately result in a regenerative economy capable of adapting and evolving as context changes, and of restoring the capitals that underpin our human, planetary and economic health.

24 years since the development of the Five Capitals, a regenerative economy is its next natural evolution and requires a much more ambitious approach if we are to stand any chance of delivering the SDGs.

As Business for Nature’s open letter said: ‘Currently, over  half the world's GDP, $44 trillion of economic value, is exposed to risks from nature loss. Before Coronavirus, the need to create more resilient economies and societies was clear, now it is inescapable. Healthy societies, resilient economies and thriving businesses rely on nature.’ 

Now is the time to get excited by the power of NbS. They aren’t new, but how they evolve from here will determine whether we can really solve the current crises we face – and business must now advocate for solutions in this space. The more NbS initiatives we see, the more we can secure the very foundations on which we all rely.


The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact – both in terms of lives lost and economic disruption. At Forum for the Future, we believe that it would be tragic to go back to yesterday’s “business-as-usual”; moments of radical disruption like this provide unprecedented opportunities to reinvent the future. We are therefore calling for business, governments, civil society and communities to seize this moment in helping to deliver a more just, sustainable and resilient world. 

Visit our COVID-19 content hub to find out more.