2 minutes
Chris White

Restoring what has been lost in the natural world holds answers to tackling the dual challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss. AECOM’s Chris White looks at the lessons being learnt from rewilding projects in the Scottish Highlands and San Diego’s backcountry in southern California

The impact of climate change has been felt in the number of extreme weather events around the world that many of us have experienced – from record heatwaves resulting in destructive and sometimes deadly wildfires to severe floods. These are not one-offs: a landmark study released this summer by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said hotter temperatures are here to stay. This means severe weather events will happen more frequently, its scientists predict.

Exacerbating these impacts, manmade damage to natural habitat is causing a biodiversity crisis. The Living Planet Report 2020, by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Zoological Society of London, warned that biodiversity was “crashing,” with a 68 percent decline globally in population sizes across all species between 1970 and 2016. According to data from the United Nations Development Programme, worldwide natural capital – our stock of renewable or non-renewable natural resources – has declined by almost 40 percent per person since the early 1990s. But it’s hard to put a value on our natural habitats until they become damaged or degraded, when it suddenly becomes clear that their contribution – the natural capital they hold – is priceless.

Part of the answer to these twin crises may already exist – in nature. If we look to rainforests and peat bogs, for example, they draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it. Getting the mix of vegetation right has been shown to keep wildfires manageable. Importantly, such nature-based solutions tackle both climate change and loss of biodiversity at the same time.

Services provided by nature

To help organizations with land stewardship responsibilities who want to make a positive contribution to tackling these global crises, we have developed approaches that will allow them to take better decisions on how they interact with and invest in their land.
We are working on significant rewilding projects in two very different habitats – the Highlands of Scotland and San Diego’s backcountry in southern California – with similar aims. Both will restore biodiversity, start to address the impact of manmade climate change and build resilience. A third project is also getting underway in southwestern Australia. Restoring habitats in each of these places is achieving the multiple benefits of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, halting biodiversity loss and making operations more resilient.

The approaches we have developed on these and other projects can be replicated to allow landowners to be better stewards of their land. The first step is to rigorously assess the natural capital – what it is, how much of it you have and how you can build it up or restore it if damaged. To reduce the cost of the repetitive processes needed to acquire and analyze data on natural assets, technology is key. Such tools measure progress in a scalable and verifiable way, which is crucial for giving investors and shareholders the confidence to support this new, quantifiable and commercially valuable relationship with nature.
In Scotland, we set up the Natural Capital Laboratory (NCL) in partnership with the Lifescape Project, landowners Roger and Emilia Leese, and the University of Cumbria at a site near Loch Ness.
Here the team are using principles from the Commission on Ecosystem Management established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to restore 100 acres of forest, connect communities and reintroduce lost species. Producing tangible metrics is a key aspect of the project: using technology such as drones, artificial intelligence, robot rovers and thermal imaging to track the impact on the environment in real time, and assigning financial values to the services provided by nature, such as the amount of carbon captured on site and the changes in biodiversity.
Over five years between 2019 and 2024, the project will capture data about environmental conditions at the site, such as soil and water quality, using our digital natural capital accounting tool. It will also act as a live experiment to develop, test and commercialize new tools and approaches for better managing the environment. The work has attracted the interest of prominent conservationists, including Charles, Prince of Wales, whose TV company has made a documentary about the project – as has the BBC’s Countryfile series – and the results are being closely watched.
From the outset, our aim was to establish a flagship project to show other companies and organizations how they could set up their own rewilding initiatives, providing tools and approaches that can reduce the costs of such projects and allow organizations to undertake them at scale. As part of this we developed a virtual-reality tool which will enable people to put on a headset and see what the ecology of the area will look like in a future rewilded landscape.
 The broader aim of NCL is to build a connected series of sites across the world, creating a global laboratory designed to develop new approaches to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises.
“We know that rewilding the land and allowing nature to take back control is an inherently good thing to do, but what is exciting about this work is that it arms us with quantitative and financial metrics with which we can demonstrate the practical value to society of restoring ecological processes,” says Adam Eagle, CEO of the Lifescape Project.
To this end, the team are now beginning the launch of NCL South in southwestern Australia, to restore biodiversity to an area damaged by forest fires and intensive agriculture, using the model developed in Scotland. We are working with the Western Australia Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI) to help rehabilitate hundreds of acres of degraded land. The wider region is home to one-third of all Australian plant species and is one of most biodiverse places in the world. The NCL South site will demonstrate what can be achieved through restoration, and how rewilded sites can also provide important value within a farming or other commercial landscape.
“Recognizing and effectively communicating the true value of the world's natural landscapes and biodiversity is a major challenge that needs to be overcome if we are to see rapid and large-scale change in the way we manage and restore our ecosystems,” says Dr. Renee Young, research director for biodiversity conservation and restoration at WABSI. “The Natural Capital Laboratory is a prime example of leading-practice ecological restoration; it provides detailed Natural Capital Accounting for the ecosystem services and connects to a global audience through an interactive and visually engaging digital platform. The NCL’s design and principles have the potential to become a major contributor to solving the global biodiversity crisis.”
While some changes will happen relatively quickly, others are a far more long-term commitment. A wetland habitat or grassland can be restored in a short time, but for a forest habitat it may take hundreds of years to have a fully-functioning woodland system with species diversity. The good news is that intermediary habitats during the restoration period form important ecosystems, too.


We are now fully aware of the extent of the climate and biodiversity crises, and there is growing recognition of the critical need for companies to play a positive role in tackling these dilemmas. In order for organizations to remain relevant in future, they will have to adopt bold new approaches to demonstrate how all of us as a society can tackle the two most far-reaching challenges of our times.
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