Hannah Duncan, journalist and freelance investment writer

The conference was held in the City of London’s glittering Guildhall, where nestled between breathtaking architecture, red carpets and historic stained glass, the buzz of hundreds of nature experts was palpable.

Triodos Bank has supported a number of projects focused on preserving and restoring the natural environment in recent years and played a role in some of the major discussions of the day.

A need for new business models

Among the highlights of the day was a lively panel discussion exploring investor perspectives on the opportunities for financing nature-based solutions in the UK, including a focus on creating sustainable profit – in every sense of the word.

Taking part was Triodos Bank UK’s Head of Corporate Finance, Whitni Thomas.

We’ve been actively developing new business models,” explained Whitni. “For example, in my team, we’ve been working with a number of environmental NGOs and Wildlife Trusts to help them develop in a way that’s scalable.

One of the most important characteristics of these new models is flexibility. For example, deal leniency might be built into the repayment structure. This means that if the borrower needs a little more time to make the payments, the bank can try and accommodate this, perhaps with interest-only periods.

Throughout the panel, all members continuously referred to the vital importance of protecting nature. As we mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, our natural environment is our best defence, and we must guard it.

Whitni Thomas (centre), Graham Ramsbottom (left) and panel chair Tushita Ranchan (right)

For Greensphere’s Head of Nature-Based Solutions, Graham Ramsbottom, success will be, “largely focused around measuring and monitoring.” Like many others, he advocates the use of reliable data and tracking as crucial to achieving our nature goals.

Susannah Stock, Director of Banking and Investments at the UK Infrastructure Bank, also stressed the need for uniformity. There isn’t even a standard contract for trading credits,” she elaborated.

Is the government moving with market demand?

Among the event’s stirring keynote addresses was an insight from Sophus zu Ermgassen, an ecological economist at the University of Oxford conducting extensive studies into nature and carbon-based credits. According to him, demand for these credits is about to explode.

Guests were also invited to a panel on the role the UK government plays in nature-based finance. The talk came at a poignant time. Just three days previously, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down long-standing climate pledges. Critics have slammed the move, with economists now widely dubbing the UK a laggard. Unfortunately, the panel – which included government ministers – did not have time for audience questions.

Luckily, I was able to ask the panel that was focused on exploring investor perspectives whether investor confidence would be shaken by the U-turns. “It could derail investor confidence, as this is derived from successive governments honoring commitments,” Whitni confirmed.

Part of the successful development of the renewables market in the UK has been due to successive governments honouring pricing mechanisms and subsidies established by previous governments. Today's government needs to follow this example if they want nature-based markets to develop with the same success.

A historically significant project

During refreshment breaks, there was the opportunity to listen to a series of ‘Nature Finance Spotlights’, where experts discussed projects and issues in greater depth.

Simon Crichton discusses the Oxygen Conservation project with Helen Avery in a 'silent seminar' format

Among them was a conversation between Triodos Bank UK’s Head of Relationship Management, Simon Crichton, and Helen Avery, Director of Nature Programmes and GFI Hive at the Green Finance Institute, which took a deeper dive into Triodos Bank's loan to Oxygen Conservation. The deal saw Triodos lend £20.5 million to Oxygen, an organisation that works to protect and improve natural assets, to support the purchase of two large estates in Scotland.

We saw [Oxygen Conservation] as a potential partner almost immediately,” Crichton commented. “We’re mission-first.”

The deal is historically significant, as it’s believed to be the largest conservation-focused commercial debt package in the UK to date.

As well as creating a profitable business, Oxygen plans to reintroduce species, regenerate agriculture, create woodland, generate renewable energy, and build sustainable housing. It will also promote eco-tourism and carbon sequestration through woodland and peatland restoration.

The conference programme also included an insightful panel discussion on the importance of Britain’s wetlands, chaired by Whitni Thomas. Collaboration is going to be key to delivering positive landscape scale change. For centuries, the marshy swamp-like terrain around our coasts have been treated like a waste of space. 90% has been drained – mostly by farmers to be used for agriculture. However, scientists are now flagging the global significance of these areas. The Blue Recovery Leaders Group, of which Triodos is a member, run by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) seeks to address that.

Head of Conservation Evidence at WWT, Geoff Hilton, explained how these areas are crucial. They sequester carbon, provide food and nutrients, support fisheries, prevent flooding, remove pollution, and even offer health benefits to society.

Our coastal fringe is globally significant, emphasised Hilton. “It’s among the most productive areas on the planet.

As the final panel session ended, audience members were left with tangible takeaways and a glimmer of hope. For myself, I left with the unshakable resolution that we must all align our finances to our most precious asset, the planet. Now is the time. We must put the eco back into our economy.

I’d like to thank Triodos Bank, Nature Finance UK, Ecosystems Knowledge Network and all the speakers for sharing their valuable insights at this event.