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The barriers we need to overcome to build in harmony with nature

31 January 2024

Building nature-positive infrastructure brings multiple benefits – but it requires engineers to approach projects differently, writes ICE President Professor Anusha Shah.

The barriers we need to overcome to build in harmony with nature
Peatlands can be found in almost every country on the globe and store twice as much carbon than all of the world’s forests. Image credit: iStock/Wirestock

Engineers have a vital role to play in mitigating the worst effects of climate change by adopting nature-positive solutions as part of infrastructure projects.

However, building with nature in mind requires a change in thinking about the design process – both in terms of how engineers approach infrastructure challenges, and in the need for greater collaboration between stakeholders.

This message was stressed at a recent ICE-hosted knowledge café that I hosted for members, infrastructure professionals, finance specialists and charity leaders.

The café took place in the run-up to my presidential year with the aim of working towards a more nature- and people-positive world.

The session focused on decoding the barriers facing nature-based and nature-positive approaches to infrastructure development.

The knowledge café took place at the ICE HQ, One Great George Street in London.
The knowledge café took place at the ICE HQ, One Great George Street in London.

What does being nature positive mean?

The realm of nature-positive solutions (NPS) goes far beyond the limited notion of nature-based solutions (NBS) such as maintaining wetlands and forests.

Being nature positive not only reduces carbon emissions but also enhances climate adaptation and builds overall resilience.

For example, peatlands are the most effective wetlands and are found in almost every country on the planet. They can store vast amounts of carbon – twice as much as all of the world’s forests.

However, a lack of appreciation for this unique ecosystem has led to its destruction and the release of huge amounts of centuries-old, stored carbon.

Ironically, peatlands have turned into a carbon source rather than a carbon sink.

It’s a necessity

We can’t achieve net zero without being nature positive.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimates that 37% of the mitigation needed by 2030 can be achieved with nature-based solutions.

Addressing nature loss, reversing biodiversity decline, and allowing nature to make a full-scale recovery from human interventions are at the heart of such approaches.

A nature-positive approach to infrastructure has benefits for society and the planet, and getting the right mix of blue-green and grey infrastructure is crucial.

Financing nature-positive solutions

A recent UN-backed report highlighted that more investment was needed in terms of conservation, restoration and sustainable management initiatives (investment ‘into’ nature), as well as nature-positive production and consumption (investments ‘for’ nature).

Most likely, a blended approach to finance will be the solution. This means combining grants with non-grant financing from the public and private sectors to create long-term capital.

One example of this is the UK’s nature impact investment strategy.

This combines funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with money raised for nature-based solutions by investors such as Federated Hermes and Finance Earth.

Significant opportunities available

According to Finance Earth, more than £6bn of average annual investment is needed for the next 10 years for the UK to deliver its nature-related commitments.

It adds that significant opportunities exist for ramping up financial backing for nature-oriented solutions – particularly from the private sector, which currently accounts for only 17% of financing for NBS investment.

To make these blended models effective, stakeholders across the value chain – including project developers, civil engineers, the finance sector and non-government organisations – will need to work together to bring projects forward for shared outcomes.

It’s therefore vital that project developers and engineers understand the mitigation hierarchy: avoiding biodiversity damage in the first instance, then seeking to minimise impacts and enhance ecosystems through the work that they do.

Overcoming barriers

Civil engineers have many reasons to be optimistic about the potential benefits of adopting nature-positive solutions.

At the same time, as well as the financing question, barriers such as legislation, early budgeting, performance over time, skills, and community engagement need to be addressed.

Implementing the biodiversity net gain requirements of the Environment Act 2021 in England and Wales will put the onus on land managers, developers and local planning authorities to contribute to the recovery of nature.

Moving forward, nature-positive assets must be budgeted for not only in the design-and-build stage of projects but also for maintenance in use.

For example, wetlands require management and monitoring long after they’re built to ensure they remain resilient and deliver continued benefits to communities.

It’s not only grey infrastructure that degrades over time.

Driving community engagement

Communities play an important role in adopting new solutions and can be important advocates.

But to achieve their buy-in, engineers need to be able to describe the co-benefits of green solutions.

Knowing how to explain why a natural solution, or a mix of grey and blue-green infrastructure, would provide better flooding protection for a community than simply a concrete barrier will be an important skill for engineers.

It’s helpful that more than 10,000 cities have committed to reducing their carbon footprints by 2050, so moving towards nature-positive solutions is now feasible.

For example, peatlands or wet woodlands have received wide acceptance from communities for the multitude of co-benefits they bring:

  • They help water companies to attain a purer quality of water owing to their purification functions.
  • They provide a nature carbon sequestration value.
  • They protect from hazards such as flooding and storms.

To many communities, peatlands and woodlands are a vibrant source of recreational activities and can boost the local economy.

Filling knowledge gaps

Gaps in our knowledge about nature-positive solutions remain, not least when it comes to their permanence compared with traditionally engineered, technical solutions.

We need to understand more about how they perform over their assumed lifecycle.

Better measurement tools are needed to gain a better insight into their performance versus traditional hard-engineering solutions.

Championing nature-positive thinking

Engineers can use frameworks such as the mitigation hierarchy to limit negative impacts on the natural environment.

However, they also need to make connections and share ideas, projects and lessons to support an international approach to tackling the climate and nature emergency.

All infrastructure professionals have an important role to play in promoting nature-positive thinking.

Civil engineers are well placed to champion such solutions by engaging with related professions, the scientific community and the public on a systems approach to the built environment and infrastructure networks.

Learn more

Watch ICE President Professor Anusha Shah’s address to hear more on how engineers can work in harmony with nature.

The organisations who participated in the knowledge café were:

  • Arcadis
  • Arup
  • Canal and River Trust
  • Finance Earth
  • Infrastructure and Projects Authority
  • KPMG
  • Mott MacDonald
  • PClisham Consulting
  • UK Infrastructure Bank
  • UN Office for Project Services
  • The Wildlife Trusts
  • WSP
  • WWF
  • Prof. Anusha Shah, president 2023/24 at Institution of Civil Engineers