In the middle of the unexpected global storm that the Coronavirus pandemic took us through, the need for more resilient communities, societies, landscapes, became more obvious. Consumers increased their preference for local purchases, finance adopted sustainability targets at an unprecedented scale*, private capital and public money was committed in billions to Nature-Based solutions. However, there is still a gap on the supply side.
Indeed, what we eat, what we use as fuel and how we decide between options really depends on the existence of technical answers at the appropriate scale, and of the appropriate supply chains to reach the end consumer. Does that mean the world is short on nature-based solutions? Surprisingly not. We do see a wealth of innovation in the field and research unveiling new promising approaches to landscape management. But the surge of available financing solutions for these ideas is not felt with the same intensity at the landscape innovation level. There is a missing link, to transition from an idea, a technique, or a finding to an investable opportunity.
The example of Serbia
In some regions, this gap is felt every day. In the city of Subotica and its surroundings, in the North of Serbia, the air quality has been deteriorating over the years, loaded with particles emitted by industries, power-generating and heating systems running on fossil fuel. With levels twice above the WHO guidelines, it translates into a public health issue.
Local communities call for cleaner air and cleaner energy and public authorities have made commitments to deliver that agenda, under pressure from the people and from EU-accession rules. This scenario is common in the Balkans. What is harder to understand is why, as the region still holds large rural areas where agriculture is slowly declining, this does not spontaneously turn into an opportunity to produce clean energy in the form of biomass grown locally, benefitting air quality and local farms.
Challenges and solutions
The challenges -and solutions- lie between supply and demand. While efficient techniques to produce biomass at scale exist, they lack a series of enabling factors to take root in Serbia and the region:
- A local example to showcase.
Biomass production is very developed in Northern Europe but not in the Balkans. Landowners hesitate to invest without a clear pathway.
- A coordination of partners
To make sure machinery, services, financing, training, and logistics are available and growing jointly. The absence of only one of these factors is enough to freeze attempts to scale up.
- A guarantee that biomass can be produced under a sustainable vision of the landscape
And not competing with food production and contributing to land and livelihoods regeneration.
- A pre-agreed offtake deal with energy consumers
To meet their technical, financial and quantity needs.
A private project developer and an international organization are joining forces to build this enabling environment. In 2020, the starting point was to demonstrate the viability of biomass production on degraded land in the once-thriving agricultural region of Vojvodina. With support from the Austrian Development Agency, E3International and CIFOR-ICRAF, they brought local networks, implementation skills and landscape science together to showcase an efficient way to regenerate soils and biodiversity while producing renewable fuelwood in a record time. From that work, the ideal mix to deliver quick results and strengthen landscape functions emerged:
- Short-rotation tree plantations on degraded land
A tree farming system where trimming happens every 1 or 2 years, boosting the production.
- Agroforestry borders
To accelerate soil regeneration, reduce erosion and diversify revenues from the land.
- Preserved forest patches on key locations
To ensure landscape connectivity.
Resilient Landscapes, a branch of CIFOR-ICRAF dedicated to building bridges between landscape science and large scale investments, is preparing the next step: turning this proven concept into an impact investment product delivering market-rate return while creating thousands of jobs, new fertile land, around 1.5GWh of clean energy supply per year and removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Step by step, from proving the relevance of an idea to establishing a risk-controlled investment opportunity, from grant-based pilots to investment-based expansion at national scale, this alliance of partners is building the pathway between existing solutions and needed action.
As private and public money is finally flowing towards nature-based solutions, investing between the obvious dots may prove to be a winning strategy. Solutions will only find their way to action if we build pathways.