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Can private money go wild?

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Mark Grundy

5 June 2024

Rewilding Britain ’s ‘Rewilding Finance’ report published today marks a major milestone in discourse about the role of private money in restoring the natural environment. Ten years ago, a report of this type would have been inconceivable. “You can’t put a price on nature” was the common retort to economic valuation of changes in the state of the environment. Those who suggested an increased role for real private money in environmental restoration ran the gauntlet of the wolves lurking in the undergrowth.

Today’s report embodies the brave new world of realism about the role of the natural environment in responding to climate concern, and the role of private money in achieving this. It puts forward a positive path that income and investment from private sources can play in all of this (if it can be channelled under the banner of ‘high integrity’). It presses all the right notes, including a poignant acknowledgement of the role of land in food and timber production.

The report is helpful in outlining the array of people involved in new financial transactions. It certainly doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that nature finance is all about birders shaking hands with bankers. No, it highlights a whole spectrum of nature-based enterprise. An ‘ecosystem’, as it calls it. This includes private land owners (some of them custodians of very small farms) to those who set standards and measure outcomes. While the report uses the word investment in its subtitle, it does acknowledge that trading in services provided by the environment is key. Investment is an enabler, not an end in itself. Revenue can come through removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into vegetation and soils, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from peatland, reduction in local flood risk, and tourism.

Rewilding Britain’s five recommendations are focused on the foundations for scaling up the revenue and investment associated with habitat restoration. They include a proposal that “local and community-led partnerships should be enabled to upscale rewilding and co-design investable propositions”. While laudable, this particular idea now needs to be brought down to earth. What does it mean, for example, for a close-knit Hebridean island, a cluster of small farms, a large rural estate, or a coastal community in decline?

The report is focused on large scale restoration of nature, affecting whole landscapes. As we do so, we need to be open that land has been a contentious matter for centuries. Rights and responsibilities of land managers have been hotly debated in many parts of these islands. New financial transactions will only heighten the tensions, especially when it affects land value. It will test the relationship between owners of land and those who look after it day-to-day. After all, whose carbon and whose nature is it? Even the highest integrity and most well-intentioned schemes won’t please everyone.

There are several groups we need to hear more from in the wake of the Rewilding Finance report. This includes the farming unions and individual farm businesses in all their diversity. Does it make business sense for them to supply nature restoration projects? It also includes investors and corporates. How will they manage the risks of becoming financially involved in projects that restore something as fluid as nature itself?

When we think of rewilding, the tendency is to think of re-wiggled rivers teaming with salmon and huge expanses of open land eyed by eagles. But we must also consider what marine and coastal habitat can do for business and wider society. And, also, not forget that we must find new ways of financing natural features in and around the cities where most people live.

If the UK is to be a global leader in nature finance (and thereby be a credible world leader in biodiversity restoration), it will be important to apply the recommendations in this report. This will take a whole new effort to connect citizens and the money in their pocket with the state of land, water and nature. After all, much of the money that Rewilding Britain want to see invested in nature is the savings, pensions and insurance premiums of people like you and me. We are all intrinsically bound into the financial system, as well as the natural world that supports us.

Going wild with private money for environmental restoration is a nettle worth grasping. Or a wolf worth taming.

Read the full report here: