Photo courtesy of Nature Conservation Research Center

Origination: The Importance of Designing Beyond Carbon

Bring the Focus Back to the People

When creating a Nature-based Solution project, carbon should not be the first priority, but the last. That means a project must provide benefits for the communities involved, first and foremost, to enhance financial stability, improve quality of life, and promote dignity. Without those, forget about permanence. By restoring, conserving, and protecting ecosystems, the local community will achieve the sought after externally evaluated carbon gains. Bring the focus back to people to de-risk project investments.

Photo courtesy of Nature Conservation Research Center

Vibrant and resilient communities are essential for a world faced with a changing climate. As a social justice organization, Nature For Justice (N4J) collaborates with locally-based organizations, businesses, and indigenous governments to co-create projects aimed at fostering resilience. Some of these projects are designed to use carbon-offset financing to underwrite the costs our local partners incur in adopting new practices, many of which they are aware of but cannot afford to implement.
N4J has written a series of blogs on the importance of working collaboratively with relevant stakeholders to achieve high quality projects with integrity that are financially viable. These include: What’s Needed For More “Shovel Ready” Carbon Projects, 7 Attributes of a Just Investor, and 5 Barriers to Entry in Carbon Projects.(The Insights section of our website has many related topics).

This blog focuses on our approach to project design, which challenges the prevailing paradigm in which carbon yield potential largely determines a project’s focus and scope. We believe that carbon should not be the first priority, but the last. By that, we mean a project must provide benefits for the communities involved, first and foremost:

  • Enhanced financial stability,
  • Improved quality of life, and
  • Promotes dignity.

Carbon financing for nature-based solutions projects can easily provide the vehicle to achieve these outcomes if utilized properly. However, unless a project enhances and maintains its focus on delivering tangible, meaningful benefits for communities involved, it will fail long term. We call this approach “beyond carbon”.

Below are some examples of the specific outcomes that should be built-in to nature-based solutions projects that restore, conserve, and protect ecosystems:

Photo courtesy of Hank Cauley

Products and supporting services provided by ecosystems

  • Food
  • Water
  • Natural products (fibre, fuelwood, medicinals,etc)
  • Soil formation and fertility
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Primary production
Photo courtesy of Bruce Taplin

Processes from healthy ecosystems

  • Local climate regulation (fire risk reduction, crop shading, soil moisture retention, frost protection etc)
  • Water flow regulation (e.g. dry season water security, flood reduction etc)
  • Water quality protection
  • Pollination
  • Pest and disease regulation


Amenity and cultural benefits / services from ecosystems

  • Cultural heritage protection / enhancement
  • Recreational and visual amenity protection / improvement
  • Education opportunities

Let’s describe the importance of a beyond-carbon approach from a variety of perspectives:

From an investment perspective: It de-risks projects, as it ensures monies invested are used to meet the needs of local people who, if lacking an on-going interest, will not support the project long-term. When communities benefit meaningfully from projects, they are incentivized to invest back into the project through self-empowered action.

From a carbon integrity perspective: The carbon curve for a project is determined by experts, but whether it will be a durable representation of what is happening on the ground is exclusively a function of the activities of the local population.

From a corporate reputation perspective: The “social license to operate” is enhanced if the project includes co-creation, local capacity building and benefit sharing. For companies looking for insetting opportunities, this is crucial.

From a quality perspective: “Quality” is a subjective and all-encompassing term that, to us, signifies a theory of change that is robust, believable, and as nuanced as necessary to reflect the reality of a community and its political and socioeconomic context. This is fundamental to the project’s viability over a 30–40-year implementation term.

*Header image courtesy of Nature Conservation Research Center


  • Steven Nitah

    Steven is a specialist in Aboriginal and Treaty Constitutional Rights, Negotiations, and Relationship Building with indigenous peoples.

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  • Michael O'Brien-Onyeka

    N4J Executive VP - Global Partnerships: Michael brings a wealth of expertise and more than 25 years of experience to this position. Most recently, he was the Senior Vice President – Africa Field Division at Conservation International. In addition, Michael has held senior positions at Greenpeace Africa, Oxfam, the National Democratic Institute, the African Child Policy Forum, and Amnesty International.

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  • Nicci Mander

    Nicci Mander is N4J's Director, Africa Nature-based Solutions Program. She is an environmental scientist with over 25 years of experience working at the nexus of nature, climate change, and social justice across sub-Saharan Africa. She’s provided strategic-level advisory services and planning support to several African governments, as well as designed, developed, and managed the delivery of large-scale community and climate change-focused programs in both urban and rural settings.

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