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What are Nature-based Solutions (NbS)?

Stratégie et RSE

Nature-Based Solutions can provide critical input to production and generate valued output in the economy. They refer to an innovative family of approaches including ecological processes as services within infrastructure management systems with perspective and planning, designing, and financing greener solutions in new ways. Indeed, “Nature-based Enterprises” means private place nature at the core of their business, using nature either directly or indirectly.

International definitions of Nature-based Solutions

In the early 2000s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was the first to use the term NbS, defining them as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems”. It then became standard in many institutions - including the United Nations Environment Programme. These solutions may address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits. A critical aspect of the IUCN definition lies in the human-centered purpose of the NbS which aligns with the different types of infrastructure.

A Nature-based Solution must meet two main requirements:

  • contribute directly to an identified societal challenge, other than that of biodiversity conservation;
  • rely on ecosystems and present benefits for biodiversity.

By protecting, managing, or restoring natural systems, NbS can address multiple sustainable development goals (SDGs): climate and disaster-risk resilience, economic and social prosperity; water security; and health and food safety. Indeed, NbS encompass multiple dimensions such like: strategic, spatial planning, soft engineering, and performance, including Urban Forestry, Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems, Low-Impact design, ecosystem-based adaptation, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, ecological engineering, ecosystem services, blue infrastructure, green infrastructure, blue-green infrastructure1.

European and international frameworks such as the EU Green Deal (European Commission, 2019), the Urban Agenda 2030 (UN, 2016), the UN Climate Action Summit 2019, and the Convention of Biological Diversity's Biodiversity Framework (CBD, 2021), the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 (European Commission, 2021), have highlighted NbS. In 2022, the European Union confirmed such a definition considering them as “actions inspired by, supported, or copied from nature”. National Framework also encourage them – see notably in France, the so-called « Plan national adaptation au changement climatique – PNACC 2 (2018-2022) » and « Plan Biodiversité (2018) ».

Different nuances of Nature-based Solutions

Older terms also capture the nuances of NbS, for instance: biomimicry, green and hybrid infrastructure, ecosystem services, environmental reserves, and ecological engineering. Finally, some related terms may reflect specific applications of NbS, such as ecosystem-based adaptation, natural and nature-based features, and green adaptation.

NbS can be referred to as:

  • natural features: ecological processes as services within infrastructure management systems. Sometimes, these approaches may create an explicit management process that recognizes functions and services already provided by a specific ecosystem. For instance, existing wetlands can remove sediment and nutrient runoff from a set of farmers' fields. They can include different types of interventions. They can regulate water flows, and improve water quality and quantity, ensuring water resources and services are protected. They also help restore and manage watersheds and rivers. NbS can also be used on coastlines at risk while restoring ecosystems such as mangrove swamps and marshes, which can reduce the impact of waves and storm surges while enhancing fisheries, restoring biodiversity, and increasing carbon sequestration.
  • highly engineered systems using natural processes - often quite sophisticated technically in their development and management, for instance, managed aquifer recharge as a groundwater reservoir for water treatment or storage. NbS can also lie in the development and implementation of green infrastructure - considering semi-natural material and the use of natural coastal infrastructure - such as barrier islands, mangrove forests and coral reefs to protect shorelines and communities from coastal flooding, and reduce the impacts of sea ​​level rise. For instance, some new product routes for insurers, companies and governments, use the protective power of mangroves as a base.

The much-needed recognition of the role of NbS

International organizations still need to encourage investments and value-chain based on NbS. NbS can lead to immediate job creation while supporting the transition to a greener, job-rich and climate-resilient economy. As economically viable and sustainable alternative, they are often less expensive in the long term than technological investments or the construction and maintenance of infrastructures to meet societal challenges such as the fight against climate change or the natural risk management. Eventually, they are flexible and adaptive because they do not require heavy infrastructure with high impact and can be managed according to the evolution of global changes.

Even though NbS could constitute more than a third of the climate change mitigation measures needed to keep the rise in temperatures below 2°C by 2030, only two-thirds of the governments are supporting the Paris Agreement with NbS actions in their national climate plans. Clear parameters, and a common framework would therefore be essential to increase the scale and impact of the NbS approach. It would help prevent unanticipated adverse outcomes or misuse and help funding agencies, policymakers, and other stakeholders assess the effectiveness of interventions.

Implementation of NbS on the scale needed to contribute to these societal challenges requires the involvement of all stakeholders - including the private sector.

Toward Nature-based Enterprises (NbEs)

The notion of “Nature-based Organizations” means private or third-sector organizations place nature at the core of their business, using nature either directly or indirectly. The character may be used directly by growing, harnessing, harvesting, or sustainably restoring natural resources or indirectly contributing to the planning, delivery, or stewardship of NbS. This notion differ from the one of “Nature-based Enterprises” because they may not operate independently or have a trading income as is the case with nationally owned and operated parks or nature reserves for instance.

“Nature-based Enterprises” are rather independent entities which are engaged in an economic activity for instance the sale of products or services at a given price, on a given/direct market that use nature directly or indirectly as a core element of their product service offering.

They involves various activities tending to:

  • Promote increased local, regional and national investment in natural resource base management, through the identification of commercially viable nature-based goods and services.
  • Strengthen value chains and market access of the commercially viable goods and services produced by the communities ;
  • Bring technical and administrative support to the communities ;
  • Encorage capacity development and training to the communities and extension officers in areas such as business management and accounting skills for successful running and operating of businesses ;
  • Contribute to biodiversity net gain.

In that capacity, Nature-based Enterprises can benefit local societies by creating new economic opportunities that are more closely tied to natural environments.

Besides, and more globally, the Secretariat of the UICN has also developed an international standard which guides project leaders and decision-makers at all stages of implementation in order to better qualify Nature-based Solutions projects and to establish a shared language.


Ademe, Les Solutions d'adaptation fondées sur la Nature (SafN) dans les référentiels. Etat actuel et perspectives d'amélioration du cadre normatif, Rapport final, septembre 2021.

Anyonge-Bashir, Munira, and Paul Udoto. “Beyond Philanthropy: Community Nature-Based Enterprises as a Basis for Wildlife Conservation.” The George Wright Forum, vol. 29, no. 1, 2012, pp. 67-73.

European Commission (2022), Director General for research and innovation, The vital role of nature-based solutions in a positive nature economy.

European Commission, User guide to the SME Definition, Ref. Ares(2016)956541 – 24 February 2016.

H.-J. Hawkins, Z.-S. Venter, M.D. Cramer, “A holistic view of Holistic Management: What do farm-scale, carbon, and social studies tell us?”, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 323, (107702), (2022).

IUCN (2020). IUCN Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions: a user-friendly framework for the verification, design and scaling up of NbS : first edition, Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

IUCN (2020), IUCN Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions, Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

S. Mac Quaid, E/D/ ooijman, M.-L. Rhodes, S. Cannon, “Innovating with Nature: Factors influencing the success of nature-based enterprises”, Centre for Social Innovation, Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, D02 H308 Dublin, Ireland.

[1] If grey infrastructure referred in the past to buildings, roads, and other urban constructions, some new methodes such like blue infrastructure rather refers to water elements, like rivers, canals, ponds, wetlands, floodplains, water treatment facilities, for instance. Green infrastructure refers to trees, lawns, hedgerows, parks, fields, forests, for instance. These terms come from urban planning and land-use planning. Besides, blue-green infrastructure can also lie in a urban planning approach in which design of naturalistic or completely artificial infrastructures in the city is intended to allow the whole water cycle to occur within the city. This can improve the delivery of water-related ecosystem services - reducing pollution in the air, irrigating parks, providing local drinking water. It can also prevent harms like flooding and spread of contaminants. ​