Climate and Nature

How we can boost the world's climate and nature recovery

Heather in the Scottish Highlands, where rewilding is encouraging nature recovery

Rewilding encourages nature recovery in the Scottish Highlands Image: Photo by ali elliott on Unsplash

Jeremy Leggett
Founder and CEO, Highlands Rewilding
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Public institutions have begun trying to make the embryonic nature-recovery market and industry investable for private institutions.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Giving to Amplify Earth Action initiative aims to spur the philanthropic world to bring its heavy guns to bear on the nature recovery market.
  • A critical mass must push for exponential growth in nature recovery if the world is to reverse biodiversity collapse and climate meltdown.

Many of our natural ecosystems, which are the world's best inventions to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, have been destroyed, eroded and can no longer undertake their vital functions. While human-centred approaches to emissions reductions are putting all the focus and hope on big technologies to save humanity, going back to the roots and basics might actually be one of the strongest strategies we have.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 and the Kunming-Montreal Agreement of 2022 aim to generate planet-saving markets reversing, respectively, climate meltdown and biodiversity collapse. The carbon markets related to the Paris Agreement are increasingly mired in uncertainty over credit verifiability. The biodiversity uplift markets that the Kunming- Montreal Agreement aims to trigger are minuscule and their growth faces profound uncertainty in biodiversity-credit definition and verifiability.

These uncertainties are a major impediment to investment on the scale needed to hit the ambitious national nature-recovery targets that governments have set. Because of the stakes, if biodiversity continues to collapse and the climate continues to melt down, this catch-22 becomes an existential threat to a liveable future.

Accordingly, the World Economic Forum’s Giving to Amplify Earth Action (GAEA) initiative could not be better timed. Public institutions have begun trying to make the nature-recovery market, and industry, investable for private institutions. In the UK, for example, the UK Infrastructure Bank made its first investment in nature recovery in 2023.

Philanthropic actors have the power to be catalytic in unlocking the private finance and government public funds required to finance positive tipping point interventions at speed and scale and there is huge scope for them to do so. This is where GAEA can come in and help.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

The idea is to utilize climate philanthropy as a force for change in corporate business practices. By bringing together a consortium of foundations we can create the most promising public-private-philanthropic partnership (PPPPs) vehicles for breakthroughs on the frontier and we can focus their considerable pooled resources to support those breakthrough solutions. The hope is that the aggregated signal can mobilize a shift in the market, by unlocking private and public capital.

What might a dream ticket for such a breakthrough vehicle look like?

Designing this is an ideal and urgent task for the consultancy world’s finest. Here is one personal effort, rooted in thirty years of climate campaigning, mostly as a social entrepreneur.

This suggestion has three themes outlined below:

1. A central role for data in investability

The breakthrough company would create multi-habitat, open-air laboratories generating data that can guarantee verifiable credits in natural capital markets. This would make the nature-recovery industry confidently investable, triggering breakthroughs to - and continuity of - the exponential growth sought. The company running these outdoor 'labs' would seek, at the same time, to create a data-rooted business with a model capable of rapid and sustainable growth on an international basis. This would create an exemplar of breakthroughs in taking nature-recovery to a global landscape scale, while it furnishes the data that accelerates the investability of its entire industry.

In its varied habitats, both terrestrial and marine, the breakthrough company would operate a scientific research programme designed to optimize natural capital, uplift-credit verification and seek innovations in monetization. The company would then sell its own credits ex-post, i.e. only after they have been created, verified and Triple-A certified. Most market players will sell credits that have yet to materialize (ex-ante sales). Ex-ante sales are where much troublesome uncertainty arises, potentially on a scale able to wreck the nature-recovery embryonic market. Ex-post selling will allow market confidence to be built (and reinstated) accordingly.

Beyond natural capital verification, in developing its commercial offering, the company would seek to persuade other landowners to follow the ex-post sales route too. It would doubtless need to use in-house lending secured on future credit revenues as an incentive, given that many landowners would have short-term finance concerns and be tempted by the cash immediately available from ex-ante sellers.

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2. Mass ownership

The premise here is that a multiplicity of owners, none of them controlling the company either alone or in small groups, might be more suited to the needs of a sustainable nature-recovery industry than most company structures. This would allow for a very different executive, advisory and governance ecosystem: one more capable of patient investment, long-term protection of the carbon sequestered and biodiversity uplifted and resolute intent to use data acquisition and processing for good.

3. Local-community empowerment

This would breathe life into the widely-held belief that existential global crises of the environment cannot be defeated without the full fighting involvement of local communities. Empowerment means going well beyond the provision of jobs and housing, to include full engagement in nature-recovery decision-making and the use of proceeds from natural capital monetization.

Three years ago, in the Highlands of Scotland, I founded Highlands Rewilding, which is endeavouring to execute this breakthrough model. The company has acquired 2,000 hectares of land and is managing it for nature recovery. The ecosystems on these estates span many habitat types, ranging from hill peatlands to varied woodlands, heathlands and grasslands, via riparian and lacustrine environments to the sea and offshore. The company has convened a small, but world-class, in-house team of scientists to lead natural-capital research in these habitats and it has established cutting-edge partnerships with leading university-based, nature-recovery research teams.

At the same time, Highlands Rewilding is positioning itself to use its data and science firepower to provide a data-driven land-management service. This will offer fellow landowners, many of whom are struggling to understand the data acquisition and interventions that will be needed to monetize their natural capital, the chance to outsource that task for a win-win share of proceeds. It is believed that this offering opens up opportunities for significant scaling in the years ahead, in Scotland and beyond.

Highlands Rewilding is a mass-ownership company. After two rounds of fundraising, the company has 809 shareholders all committed to the rewilding mission, with no one shareholder owning more than 13% of shares. Many of the 53 Founding Funders from the first round are present or past business leaders with vast collective experience. Nearly 5% of our investors live in the communities where we work.

And, the company is rooted in the communities where we work. Its stated purpose is “nature recovery and community prosperity through rewilding taken to scale in Scotland and later beyond.” This approach is proving popular across the stakeholder spectrum, including in the communities themselves, in government and in the financial institutions that must be coaxed across the line to 8- and 9-figure investments if national nature-recovery targets are to be hit.

It will come as no surprise, therefore, that Highlands Rewilding enthusiastically welcomes the GAEA initiative. The company is confident that many other companies on the nature-recovery frontier will feel the same way. A critical mass of forerunners must break through to exponential growth in the crucial years ahead. If that does not happen, the world cannot hope to reverse biodiversity collapse and climate meltdown. The GAEA initiative has every chance of helping materially in making that breakthrough happen and, perhaps, in being the deciding factor.

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