Nature and people first: That’s the concept of a nature-based economy

12 May 2022 editor Elaine Burke speaking with Siobhan McQuaid. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Siobhan McQuaid, principal investigator of the Connecting Nature project led by TCD, spoke at Future Human of the benefits of working toward a nature-based economy.

“The nature-based economy puts nature and people at the centre of economic development,” Siobhan McQuaid, principal investigator of the Connecting Nature project explained at Future Human today (12 May).

Speaking with Silicon Republic Editor Elaine Burke, McQuaid said the nature-based economy is a new concept that involves a “paradigm shift” in thinking about economic development, and the type of economy we want in the future.

Connecting Nature is an €11.4m five-year project funded by the EU, involving 30 partners across 16 European countries plus hubs in Brazil, China, Korea and The Caucasus.

This consortium is working with local authorities, communities, industry partners, NGOs and academics who are investing in large-scale implementation of nature–based projects in urban settings.

McQuaid said that central to this new concept are “nature-based solutions”, which involve looking at nature as a solution to problems that currently exist, such as heatwaves or flooding in cities.

“Nature has been used to mitigate against these problems and adapt to climate change for millions of years, so what we specifically look at is the potential for these nature-based solutions to create an alternative source of employment, source of innovation, source of skills and source of jobs,” McQuaid said.

The EU Commission defines nature-based solutions as “solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits, and help build resilience”.

A different scaling model for businesses

McQuaid stressed that the idea of having nature-based enterprises is not mutually exclusive to economic growth, but the scaling models are different as these enterprises put biodiversity issues first.

She explained that many nature-based enterprises the Connecting Nature project works with focus on franchise models for growth across Europe and scaling up local contractors.

“It’s a different model, but it’s one that presents many opportunities,” she said. “Its not incompatible, but it is a different priority.”

McQuaid said the Connecting Nature project identified 11 sectors where nature-based enterprises are currently active. This includes well-known sectors such as regenerative agriculture and sustainable tourism.

However, McQuaid added that there is still a large amount of greenwashing in the corporate world. One example she gave is of companies planting trees and calling it a nature-based solution. This can lead to monoculture plantations that destroy native vegetation which is rich in biodiversity.

“It just goes back to a fundamental change in attitude,” McQuaid said. “The prevailing attitude seems to be ‘do no harm.’ We need to switch that attitude. Instead of saying ‘do no harm’, how can we proactively support businesses that are trying to do good for nature and for people?”

Ireland is lagging behind

One of the main challenges McQuaid mentioned is the fact the nature-based economy is a new concept, which means there is a lack of data and market research to see the potential in each country and sector.

However, there are some countries that are taking the lead. McQuaid said Austria is a leader in Europe in terms of green infrastructure, with the government taking active measures to support this sector.

McQuaid caused laughter among the Future Human audience when asked how Ireland is comparing to other countries, as her initial response was simply, “Can we move on?”

She said that, to her knowledge, Ireland is not active in the nature-based economy as the Government is still focused on traditional economic parameters, such as how fast a business can scale and develop.

McQuaid said the benefits of a nature-based economy are already clear to environmental scientists, but in order to really change the way we think about the future economy, buy-in is needed from economists and policymakers. “We need both and we need them to start working together,” she said.

She concluded that it is possible to achieve economic growth and “those traditional parameters of success” by focusing on nature and people, but it requires a significant change “right across the board”.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic