As someone whose group listed several Pacific salmon for Endangered Species Act protections, founded the world’s first water trust, and has recently “operationalized” regional water quality trading markets, I live in a very applied world.
And as someone who recently secured significant social impact financing to scale those markets, I now look at conservation finance through a fairly specific lens: what does it take to move these big noble concepts to the ground in a way that lowers investor risk and improves return? No longer is my job about selling the green dream and its intrinsic value to a donor—it’s about actualizing value in an integrated world.
We need to recalibrate what we do and how we do it. The biggest danger I see (and investors see right through) is dressing up traditional actions and selling them as new. We actually need new tools, not just new ways to pay.
The two most powerful forces on the planet, the economy and the environment, have never had a reliable lingua franca to do business together consistently in a consistent way—operating instead as alternating drag coefficient to the other. The rapidly evolving age of ecosystem services changes that by focusing not on what something is but on what something does.
We are evolving from the procedure-based 20th century, with its focus on “no net loss” and stopping bad things from happening. Restoring the environment in this century demands speed, standardized tools, and quantifiable units of ecosystem uplift. Together, these will enable us to achieve environmental gains, measured and tracked over time.
Rather than simply being considered a good acre, we can calculate how many pounds of nitrogen a wetland filters in a year, or how much a tree canopy cools a watershed. Standard ecosystem currencies (for example, pounds of nitrogen runoff absorbed by natural streamside buffers, or tons of carbon sequestered by forests) tied to quantified uplift will prove more reliable and precise than the practice-based approaches of the past. With standard currencies, the expertise held by NGOs could be leveraged for front-end diligence for project selection and design, back-end monitoring, and expanding participation.
Conservation must move from the intrinsic to the quantified. Proper data acquisition, analysis, and management today are real work—and real different than the type conservation has historically utilized. We greens are a sophisticated bunch, but data now moves faster, reaches further, and either gets used correctly or gets wasted. The layered maps of yesteryear are a great starting point for selection, but with drones, LiDAR, and remote sensing technologies, we’re going granular in real-time. Not all restoration actions are created equal; these tools will separate the greater from the lesser.
Speed will derive primarily from technology, which helps with standardization and quant. For example, when we realized there are only 16 ways to fix a river, we built a software platform that cut project timelines in half while increasing standardization and quality. We held an internal “X Prize” that rendered our first mobile app (for monitoring project sites), turning a four-day data collection job into a four-hour exercise. The app tells us how to boost plant survival and calculate nursery orders for the next contract, driving results up and costs down.
Ours is not the only entity building new and better tools; the key will be putting those tools into millions of local hands doing work on the ground to criteria certain. That means scale, which drives deal flow, which investors need.
The need for increased conservation finance is real. As Fabian Huwyler, Juerg Kaeppeli, Katharina Serafimova, Eric Swanson, and John Tobin point out, so is the imperative for both the conservation and finance sectors to work collaboratively to find a path beyond what is known, and to pursue what is needed. We have, for the first time, the information needed to determine what works and what does not in real time, to refine practices, focus investments, and guide regulatory efforts in a hyper-informed way to achieve economic and environmental gain. So let’s do it.