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Making COP count

Creating a market for natural capital

Author: ICAEW

Published: 09 Nov 2023

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The North Devon Biosphere Foundation is making preservation pay, creating a marketplace for natural capital projects that marries natural protections with business returns.

The North Devon Biosphere is one of the largest of the UK’s seven biospheres. UNESCO biosphere reserves are designated to promote the conservation of biodiversity and be “learning areas for sustainable development”. North Devon’s biosphere is 1.3 million acres in total, including both land and sea. 

“We've got quite a big footprint going out into the Bristol Channel, including the Isle of Lundy in that area,” says Tim Jones, Chairperson of the North Devon Biosphere Foundation. “It includes about 20% of Dartmoor and about 20% of Exmoor, so it's a big piece of geography.” 

It also includes a number of principal towns including Barnstaple, Bideford and Great Torrington. Furthermore, says Jones, it has a huge selection of unique natural assets on its land and in its rivers and seas. 

Critically, it’s also home to around 25,000 businesses above the VAT threshold, and countless others below it. There are about 5,000 farms in the region. “While there are some big businesses, it's an intensely rural area and very dispersed. There’s a huge amount of dependency on tourism – hospitality, tourism and leisure are probably about 26% to 27% of the total GDP in the region.”

For its initial period of 15 years or so, the biosphere has been operating as essentially an environmental research programme, with commercially scalable experiments and trials. It's been a centre for a lot of activity for various universities across the south-west and beyond. 

But around two and a half years ago it became evident, as the debate around natural capital started to emerge, that the business rationale for the biosphere needed to change, says Jones, who was asked to chair the board of the foundation as a result. “I have a commercial finance background, my day job being in commercial property development. Our business plan is that we should open up the opportunity of creating a trading marketplace for the sale of ecosystem services.” 

At that time, it was still quite an immature concept. Now, it has become a big deal. “A market suddenly emerged in front of us. It’s the whole issue of how you trade for natural capital assets and deal with biodiversity offsetting; how do you deal with biodiversity net gain? It’s something that everyone needs to know about, from the smallest to the biggest businesses. For example, companies in the house-building industry have got to be able to relate to this agenda, so it has suddenly become hugely topical.”

These natural capital assets (which also assist in the development of the local supply chain) break down across a number of activities including carbon sequestration and reforestation, eco tourism projects, and agriculture for green electricity, such as miscanthus and maize. This has already resulted in the development of a number of local businesses in the region centred around improvements to nature and biodiversity.

One area the foundation is prioritising includes investment in marine assets (both permanent water and intertidal). Kelp, seaweed and seagrass have several commercial uses, and if managed well, can capture carbon and create an ecosystem for nature to thrive in. “It can be recycled into a wide range of projects: animal feeds, pet food, fertiliser. Alginates go into the pharmaceutical industry as a byproduct out of certain types of seaweed.” 

These are projects that reduce carbon emissions, protect and rebuild natural ecosystems, and support local communities and economies, says Jones. It’s critical that all three factors are considered for bids on the region’s natural assets. Recently, for example, the foundation has been heavily engaged in the spin-off benefits of creating floating offshore wind farms in the Celtic Sea. 

“We’re developing concepts there with a number of bidders for that programme to see how we can engage with them in developing local business capabilities,” says Jones. “It's partly existing business and partly making sure that emerging opportunities are aligned with the local business stock that we've got. We’ve got the right skills and the right supply chain to make sure that all of the work arising from this does not need to be outsourced.” 

It is hoped that a lot of activities surrounding wind farm installations will be centred around the Appledore shipyard in Bideford. Jones says that much of the work is servicing the turbines and in managing and maintaining the cabling that connects the wind turbines to the grid. “All of that is part of a programme that we’re developing at the moment, not only for maintenance, but also to make sure that during the installation period we've got the right skills.”

Natural capital is something that every business now needs to know about, and with the introduction of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) framework for natural capital reporting, it’s only going to get more important. It’s a huge opportunity for the North Devon economy, says Jones.

“Inflation and the impact of higher interest rates has had a huge detrimental effect on our hospitality businesses. They're all looking to diversify, and natural capital initiatives and how we can convert these into local businesses are great opportunities. So, awareness levels are high and we’re slowly integrating the programme we’ve got so that we can convert that into real job creation, most particularly by making sure we’ve got a very resilient local integrated supply chain.”

There has been a heavy focus on digital training apprenticeships and other initiatives to improve data skills, which the foundation identified as a significant need, with closer alignment with further education colleges and partnerships with the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth. “It’s been predominantly about making sure that the businesses were capitalised sufficiently, and getting the skill base and workforce capability to align with the opportunities available.”

The tax credits, benefits and government grants have helped to increase investor interest in natural capital initiatives, but market capacity building has been a hurdle to clear. Most businesses in the region are fairly generalist and have had to develop specialisms. “The operators on the ground really have risen to the challenge. Some of the specialist skills that they've developed have been extremely helpful.

“We had to do a lot of market making to begin with, just to raise awareness levels, but you know you’ve broken through when people start coming back to you with ideas. A lot of that has been stimulated by academia; universities would be very helpful in providing new thought pieces around research and development opportunities for product development and enhancement. But we’ve got to the point now where businesses are coming to us with ideas rather than us having to chase them down.”

The next phase of the project is its fund launch, after which the marketplace will gear up significantly. The leadership team is preparing the ground very carefully in advance to ensure it can handle that increase in interest. “The challenge is to make sure that we can deal with the appetite from investors. As you will know, investors have a very single-minded attitude to a lot of these things. They want to know what rate of return they will get on the capital, which we’ve had to react to. It’s things like that that we’ve been working on, but it’s not something you can necessarily do at speed. I’m pacing the team very carefully.”

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