Milestone


04

Identify and Work with Buyers

Milestone 4: Identify and Work with Buyers

Based on your earlier market analysis in initial project scoping, you will have identified one or more groups of beneficiaries who may be willing to ‘buy’ or pay for the ecosystem service(s) to be created, restored or maintained. Buyers vary – as do their requirements – but at this step, greater buyer engagement is now needed to develop a deal that channels money towards the nature-positive outcomes that your project wants to deliver.

 

 

Milestone 1: Initial Project Scoping

Often the initial task is to understand the site(s) you want to use and the land use change needed for nature restoration or creation. This includes considering the goals of the land managers involved, the vision within the wider catchment or neighbouring area, and whether there are permits or planning consent needed for any proposed changes.

At this stage, you can also conduct a high-level assessment to determine which revenue streams can be generated from ecosystem services , e.g. carbon credits, flood reduction cost savings, or biodiversity units, which will be crucial for identifying buyer interest.

Finally, it is useful to have an idea of the costs of the project and potential grant funding that may be available to support initial development.

Milestone 2: Identify and Work with Sellers

Initial ownership of the ecosystem services will belong to the landowners or, in some cases, the tenants of the sites that the project is using. However, these can be passed onto others, such as third-party project developers, with appropriate legal arrangements and compensation. In some cases, there may be a sole seller of the ecosystem services, where the site or landholding is large enough that it delivers the volume of ecosystem services needed to cover the costs of the project and attract buyers.

However, in order to achieve scale and impact, a project will likely involve multiple sellers, such as neighbouring farmers and estate managers. Scale of land is often needed to deliver significant environmental outcomes, and also to attract private finance. Project developers must plan how they initially contact and engage with these sellers going forward, building their wants and needs into the project.

Milestone 3: Baseline and Estimate Ecosystem Services

At this point, you will have understood the vision for the project and identified a particular ecosystem service or set of services to be sold. The next step will be to carry out detailed analysis – baselining each ecosystem service and quantifying what will be able to be delivered from the interventions, as well as planning how to monitor and maintain these interventions. You will need to rely heavily on ecological expertise for this more scientific Milestone.

At this step, standards, verification and accreditation methods will be considered in more depth.

Milestone 4: Identify and Work with Buyers

Based on your earlier market analysis in initial project scoping, you will have identified one or more groups of beneficiaries who may be willing to ‘buy’ or pay for the ecosystem service(s) to be created, restored or maintained. Buyers vary – as do their requirements – but at this step, greater buyer engagement is now needed to develop a deal that channels money towards the nature-positive outcomes that your project wants to deliver.

 

 

Milestone 5: Develop Business Case and Financial Model

You’ll have started building your business case and financial model in earlier steps – laying out your vision, the market proposition and estimating costs and income. This step offers a review, in addition to providing details on information needed to build out the financial model and business case more fully. Both of these key documents will be iterated throughout project development, and may be altered during project delivery as new information emerges. These documents are interlinked and, if developed correctly, will ensure your project’s viability and also help you with discussions with stakeholders including sellers, buyers and future investors.

The financial model will also enable you to better understand the type of structure your project may take to attract investment (i.e., an environmental bond, a loan, an equity investment) and what sort of returns you can afford to pay/offer.

Milestone 6: Develop a Governance Structure

A governance structure will inform the way in which the project is run when fully operational and for what purpose. It identifies appropriate decision making processes, who is responsible for what actions, and what controls are in place to make sure that the project is meeting its stated goals, all while abiding by the risk appetite of its engaged stakeholders. The legal entity to host the project will be a key driver in this, and the appropriate choice of entity will be dependent on several factors that are outlined below.

Your governance structure should align with and underpin your business case, as a necessary component of how the project will deliver its environmental outcomes and other strategic targets.

Milestone 7: Identify and Work with Investors

It is important to note that not all projects will need up-front investment, but for those that do, this section provides a framework for thinking around the development of the investment model. This does not constitute financial advice – as the GFI is not licensed to do so. However these considerations are based on the insight offered by project developers and other market stakeholders.

An investor will be a new core stakeholder in your project, and it’s just as important to think of what you require from investors, as much as what they require from you – so that you can build a positive and collaborative relationship with them.

This entails defining the investment ask (in line with the financial model), the strategy for approaching the right investors, and the negotiation of terms that can then be formalised in contract development (Milestone 8).

 

Milestone 8: Establish Legal Contracts and Closing

When all relevant stakeholders have been engaged and their terms of engagement are clarified as much as possible, this is the time to develop the legal contracts and close the deal. This stage is last because legal fees are expensive, and it is generally advised to determine as much as possible in previous stages before

Note: The information in this Milestone does not constitute any form of legal advice but instead serves as practical advice on how to manage engagement with lawyers and the process of contract development.

The Green Finance Institute is not a firm of solicitors or connected in any way with the courts. The information and opinions we provide in this section and across the Toolkit do not address your individual requirements and are for informational purposes only. They do not constitute any form of legal advice. We recommend that appropriate legal advice should be taken from a qualified solicitor before taking or refraining from taking any action.

Community Engagement

Community engagement is highly advisable for any project that aims to sell ecosystem services, to ensure fair outcomes for local communities and the long-term success of the project. Project developers can build connections with local stakeholder groups early on to spot both risks and opportunities.

Policy and Regulation

Project developers and enterprises will need to keep a continuous check on how current and future policy may affect the project, and also opportunities for the project to inform policy. The role of private finance for nature across the UK is being encouraged by the UK government and its devolved administrations, and new rules, standards and markets are being developed.

 

This milestone contains three subsets or themes of considerations that project developers may want to explore at this stage. Click on each of these themes to the right in order to read more.

You can also read case studies of projects that have successfully completed this milestone of development and view a summary of the common activities undertaken at this stage below.

Case Studies

Checklist

Useful Links

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Next Milestone
Mapping Beneficiaries and Potential Buyers

Mapping Beneficiaries and Potential Buyers

You can conduct a more in-depth beneficiary analysis and identify individual buyers, capturing information on their willingness to pay, restrictions that may prevent them from acting on this willingness, and their opportunity costs. You might have completed this step as part of Initial Project Scoping (Milestone 1).

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Which of my beneficiaries could be willing to pay? Why?

There will be multiple beneficiaries from any nature-based project, but most will not be willing to pay for different reasons. Often it is because the benefits of the ecosystem services are so dispersed that no individual has an incentive to pay the full costs of the project. Other times the relationship between the target ecosystem services and the interventions your project is using may not be proven to a degree that satisfies the buyer.

You may have done a high-level beneficiary analysis in initial project scoping (Milestone 1), but this should be expanded to include the following factors:

  • Have I considered all ecosystem services that are generated from the proposed interventions?
  • Are the ecosystem services quantifiable, and if so, how are they quantified?
  • Is there a way to assign a monetary value to these units? E.g. what economic analysis has been undertaken elsewhere to value the relevant ecosystem service(s)?
  • Who benefits from these ecosystem services? Have all beneficiaries within the defined geographic area of the project been identified?
  • What is their understanding of their relationship with this ecosystem service? Do they realise they are dependent on it, benefit from it, or have a negative impact that needs to be mitigated?
  • What are their risks or opportunity costs in terms of not obtaining this ecosystem service?
  • What are their constraints in terms of their spending or ability to commit to contracts?

 

Does the scientific data demonstrate the flow of benefits to them? How much uncertainty of the ‘cause-and-effect ’ relationship are they willing to accept?

Buyers will need assurance that they’re getting what they pay for. In some cases, this is relatively straightforward with the presence of a credible third party. For example, corporates purchasing units from the Woodland Carbon Code and Peatland Code can be confident that they can use these as part of their environmental reporting in the UK,  as permitted under the UK Government’s Environmental Reporting Guidelines.

Where the project is relatively unprecedented, for example with the use of a new methodology, buyers will likely need to be involved early on to agree the methodology. They may need to take this modelling to their own key stakeholders, such as regulators or planning authorities, for consent on committed payments. An example of this was with the Wyre Catchment Natural Flood Management Project.

Nature markets will always rely on proxies for outcomes, such as the Peatland and Woodland Carbon Codes, which are both based on scientific consensus for the carbon performance of woodlands and restored peatland habitats respectively. The proxy used here is the health / condition of the habitats, within which market stakeholders assume there is a certain level of carbon stored – based on the scientific evidence base that the Codes are built on.

In areas where codes are not yet established, more expensive technical proving is likely to be needed to attract buyers, unless the buyers are perhaps willing to accept a lower degree of confidence that the outcomes can/have been delivered.

 

Are there any geographical restrictions for those buyers?

Again, this will be dependent on the ecosystem service you are selling and any underlying market infrastructure. Carbon offsets produced in a certain country, for example, can be bought by domestic companies, or potentially international companies, depending on their capacity to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Conversely, selling nutrient reduction benefits from a wetland to a water company will depend on where this wetland is in relation to where the water company’s assets are located on the watercourse (e.g., wastewater treatment works).

 

Is the government going to be a buyer alongside private buyers?

Government entities may be interested in acting as a buyer, for example purchasing the flood risk reduction for a catchment that has historically been severely impacted by flooding.

Thought should be given to the restrictions that government entities face, such as short-term funding cycles that would prevent them from entering long term contracts, agreeing to a blended finance structure with private companies, or any restricted mandates in terms of their spending.

 

Is the buyer ethically aligned and how can I confirm it?

Though not strictly necessary for the feasibility of the project, it is preferable to seek high-integrity buyers in terms of their wider sustainability track record, as this will ensure that the project is generating an environmental net gain and is not being used by the buyer as a licence to inflict damage elsewhere. The choice of buyer can also be viewed as a reflection of the project’s own integrity.

A well-known example is the sale of carbon offsets to companies in relation to their carbon mitigation hierarchy, where it is well-established in the market that entities should first avoid and reduce their own emissions and only use offsets for the “residual” emissions that cannot be avoided.

There are emerging methods to support the assessment of buyer suitability, but you may consider some of the following factors as guidance:

  • Does the buyer have a decarbonisation strategy that follows the carbon mitigation hierarchy? Is this strategy aligned with an established framework, such as the Net Zero Standard of the Science Based Targets initiative? Is this strategy robust under scrutiny? Note: it may be helpful to keep in mind the size of the organisation you are engaging with and think on whether their effort is proportionate to their available resources, as smaller companies generally have fewer resources to spend on sustainability strategies compared to larger ones.
  • Does the buyer hold any certifications that demonstrate its business model’s existing level of sustainability, and are these labels robust under scrutiny?
  • How is the sustainability agenda or strategy actioned within the buyer’s organisational structure? For example, is there a member on the executive committee, such as the Chief Financial Officer, who leads the strategy? Is there an individual or team within the organisation that focuses exclusively on the execution of this strategy?
  • Does the buyer invest part of its profits into research and development of more sustainable processes to use in its business model?
  • Is the buyer building a holistic picture of its impacts and dependencies on nature more widely, for instance by using the TNFD framework?

 

Is there supporting market infrastructure or methods to access buyers?

You’ll have considered this question in initial project scoping (Milestone 1) but with a clearer picture of your ecosystem services, you can plan the project’s route to market more clearly –  i.e. the method of reaching, selling and transacting with your buyer(s).

For example, if you are selling carbon credits then you may consider a long term off-take agreement with a single large buyer, or the feasibility of forming a carbon club with a broker who can help sell the credits to many smaller businesses more quickly. For sale of biodiversity units (under Biodiversity Net Gain), there may be a habitat bank acting as an intermediary or even the statutory biodiversity credits scheme that is run by central government.

 

Approaching Buyers

Approaching Buyers

You should plan your initial contact with buyers carefully, including what information you can give on the project at this point and responses to the likely questions they will ask.

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How best to approach buyers?

How you approach buyers can be thought of in four main ways, but most likely a project developer will do more than one of the below:

  • Direct contact: Project developers might have a specific buyer that they want to approach directly, in which case it is important to identify the relevant contact within the buyer’s organisation for the most effective initial contact. For example, these could include financial directors, sustainability officers, supply chain managers, risk officers or corporate social responsibility leads, depending on what you are selling and to who.
  • Through a broker or other intermediary: For instance, carbon brokers, planning authorities, supply chain consultants or eNGOs may already be in contact with a network of potential buyers with suitable demands.
  • Profile raising and collecting Expressions of Interest: If you’re working at a landscape scale and targeting a large group of buyers in a defined area, consider launching a communications campaign to raise the profile of your project. This might include attending local business forums and conferences, running social media campaigns, partnering with reputable charities, and then collecting Expressions of Interest (EoIs) before you reach out to buyers directly.
  • Passive presence on a platform or registry: As a less proactive approach, project developers might simply list their project on a registry or platform that connects relevant buyers and sellers, such as the UK Land Carbon Registry or Kana. This may save time and resources, but you should be confident about the effectiveness of this option if it is the only buyer approach you are taking.

 

How can I assure buyers that the project is trustworthy?

Buyers might ask you directly about the robustness and credibility of your project. Consider using the below points to structure a fuller answer:

  • Quality of delivery – Who are the partners in the project that are key to its design and delivery, what are their credentials, what local knowledge do they have and are their core values aligned to those of the project?
  • Scientific measurement – What methodology have you chosen and why is it best suited to the project for baselining and estimating the ecosystem services? How does it show a clear causality between the interventions being used and the ecosystem services the project claims to be delivering?
  • Independent verification – Is there an independent third party that can verify the outcomes of the project or its design, such as an ecologist, auditor, or government expert? This verification should align with the scientific methodology.
  • Permanence – How are you contractually maintaining the project’s change in land use or interventions over the promised number of years? How are you managing or mitigating the factors that could reverse your project, such as severe flooding, fires or rising temperatures?
  • Do no significant harm – how can buyers be sure that the project Is being designed to generate the best environmental and social outcomes, for example that habitat banks are being created with appropriate native vegetation. If there are any unintended costs, how are you minimising or compensating for these negative externalities?
  • Additionality – What are the buyer’s payments being used for, how is this generating additional environmental outcomes alongside any use of public funds or projects that are already underway?
  • Prevention of double-selling – What assurance can you provide that you’re not selling the same services or claims to the project to another buyer? E.g. is there a single registry that you can use to publicly list the project and the sale of the ecosystem service?
  • Effective governance – How is the governance of the project structured (see Milestone 6), for example who will be running the project (once underway) and what system of controls are in place to make sure that the project is running smoothly? Is there any independent oversight built in?

 

What information should I present, and how should I manage expectations?

This is entirely dependent on the point at which you engage buyers in your project’s development, but in any case it should be made clear what has been confirmed, where there is still uncertainty and what indications or proxies you are using to be comfortable with this uncertainty, for example price points in previous projects, up-front cost estimates, and government guarantees.

To present potential buyers using a more formal structure, you may use the outline of the business case in Milestone 5, as this is a generic but well-established list of content points that will be familiar to many commercial buyers.

 

What price points should I be prepared with?

Ultimately, the price that buyers pay will be driven by the lifetime costs of the project, including the financing cost of any up-front, repayable investment needed. If these lifetime costs are not built into the price paid by buyers, then the project will become financially unviable at some point in the future. Project developers should be prepared to negotiate payments in earnest when they have a clear idea of how much is needed to meet these costs.

That being said, buyers can be engaged before the full costs are known, to establish interest and other key conditions that they might have. Depending on how your ecosystem service is packaged (e.g. provisional services, environmental units, ecotourism visitor fees), you could use comparable transaction price points to give rough figures for negotiation.

 

Do the buyers want to base their payments on activities or outcomes?

Activities and the outcomes they deliver are two separate things that payments can be contractually based on –  e.g. hectares of new woodland vs the tonnes of sequestered carbon over the lifetime of that woodland. In order to ensure environmental outcomes, payments should ideally be conditional upon actual delivery of the ecosystem service(s).

However, this might present a time-delay between the costs of the activities and the income from the ecosystem service delivery, and in turn there may be a need for up-front investment that the project would need to service (see Milestone 7).

Alternatively, the total cost of measuring and verifying the delivery of the ecosystem services over the lifetime of the project, such as soil carbon sampling or biodiversity surveying, may be prohibitive  and buyers might view it to be more efficient to simply pay for the activities up front with appropriate maintenance and monitoring in place to preserve the quality of the interventions.

 

Is there public / philanthropic support or guarantees that can provide comfort to buyers?

Public or philanthropic funding to reduce the burden of payment is generally well received by buyers, as well as the commitments given by other buyers to date. These generally indicate that the project costs are being shared amongst different parties and therefore the required payments represent value for money to that individual buyer.

 

What is the timing of their demand?

In initial conversations, you should make certain that the ecosystem service(s) being offered by the project can be delivered in the quantity and timeframe required by the buyer.

For instance, that there are enough carbon credits being generated from a peatland restoration project so the buyer can declare itself ‘Carbon Neutral’ by a certain year.

 

Do I need to use NDAs?

An NDA can be used if either the buyer or seller wants some legal protections around confidentiality and sensitive information, though you should check this point with all existing stakeholders in the project.

In the event your project needs an NDA, the most convenient option is to ask the entity requiring the NDA (e.g. the buyer) to draft one, or there are standard template documents on the internet you can use free of charge.

 

Ongoing engagement

Ongoing engagement

When buyers are willing to explore the project in more depth, consider the below points as a way to solidify a common understanding around the particulars of the project.

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What are their needs in terms of data and monitoring, reporting and verification?

Buyers may have clear demands on the stream of data and reporting that the project gives once the interventions have been implemented. How this reporting is set up could affect the risk profile of the project or even the buyer’s useability of the ecosystem service itself.

For example, water companies purchasing phosphate reduction outcomes from a treatment wetland might be motivated by the need to meet a regulatory burden on water stewardship. The data they require from this wetland may be specific and without regular reporting they could risk regulatory fines.

 

How do they want to accept the ecosystem services? What format of agreement?

Buyers will likely have a preferred contractual arrangement to underpin the payments and claim over the ecosystem services. For example, the use of Emission Reduction Purchase Agreements (ERPAs) for woodland creation projects.

More detail on contracts, including certain templates for buyer agreements, can be found in Milestone 8.

 

What claims does the buyer want to make publicly?

Project developers might assume the buyer is participating in the scheme for a certain reason that has been agreed informally. However, this internal understanding might not be fully representative of the position the buyer wants to take externally, for instance to its own customers or to its regulators. This will alter the types of external communications buyers are comfortable making.

As an example, a buyer may be working to a decarbonised position by a certain year, but depending on its exact language, it may be at risk of making false claims, such as with the terminology of ‘Net Zero’ versus ‘Carbon Neutral’ under certain frameworks.  For carbon offset purchases, you can refer to the guidance set out by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi, 2023) and the Voluntary Carbon Markets Initiative (VCMI, 2023).

A buyer may also want to include this project as part of their TNFD reporting. The TNFD was formally launched in September 2023 and is primarily aimed at large corporates and financial institutions. It is a framework that helps companies to understand and report on the risks and impacts they have on their natural environment. There are over 1,200 UK businesses that are currently signed up to the TNFD Forum, and so a potential buyer may wish to refer to your project and their contributions as part of their TNFD reporting.

 

What other ‘value add’ services and project features can I offer them?

Seemingly small things offered by project developers can be valued by buyers. Consider the offer of professionally taken photos for buyers to use in their own marketing, or public statements on the buyer’s valued involvement in the project.

Another option that can be popular is the offer of off-site days to the buyer’s own employees, where they can visit the site, learn about the project and potentially spend time maintaining the site’s condition or recording data on the site as part of a volunteering scheme (also a benefit to the project itself).

 

What kind of agreements can I put in place that are non-legally binding?

As with seller engagement (see Milestone 2), it can be extremely useful to sign non-binding agreements with buyers that outline their commitment to pay for the ecosystem services of the project.

Documents like Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), Expressions of Interest (EoIs), or Letters of Intent (LoIs) can be especially useful to take to an investor as evidence that this project is likely to generate a revenue stream and therefore can give a viable return.

 

All Case Studies
Checklist

 

You can download a Word copy of the Milestone 4 Considerations as a checklist here, to help with your own project planning.

Alternatively, you can find a simple list of the Considerations below:

 

 

Mapping beneficiaries and potential buyers 

  • Which of my beneficiaries could be willing to pay? Why?
  • Does the scientific data demonstrate the flow of benefits to them? How much uncertainty of the ‘cause-and-effect ’ relationship are they willing to accept?
  • Are there any geographical restrictions for those buyers?
  • Is the government going to be a buyer alongside private buyers?
  • Is the buyer ethically aligned and how can I confirm it?
  • Is there supporting market infrastructure or methods to access buyers?

 

Approaching buyers 

  • How best to approach buyers?
  • How can I assure buyers that the project is trustworthy?
  • What information should I present, and how should I manage expectations?
  • What price points should I be prepared with?
  • Do the buyers want to base their payments on activities or outcomes?
  • Is there public / philanthropic support or guarantees that can provide comfort to buyers?
  • What is the timing of their demand?
  • Do I need to use NDAs?

 

Ongoing engagement  

  • What are their needs in terms of data and monitoring, reporting and verification?
  • How do they want to accept the ecosystem services? What format of agreement?
  • What claims does the buyer want to make publicly?
  • What other ‘value add’ services and project features can I offer them?
  • What kind of agreements can I put in place that are non-legally binding?

 

 

On the 18th of April, the GFI hosted the fourth in a series of webinars that focus on project developers’ journey to Investment Readiness.

This webinar provides NEIRF community members with the opportunity to hear from a panel of project developers who have successfully engaged with buyers, including:

  • Stephen Prior, Co-Founder and Director, Forest Carbon
  • Sarah Brownlie, Director of Development, Wilder Carbon Standards
  • Sarah Jane Chimbwandira, Chief Executive Officer, Surrey Wildlife Trust

The webinar was chaired by Phoebe Tucker, Nature Associate, Green Finance Institute

You can also view the slides of the speakers below:


On the 23rd of May 2023 at 1pm, the Green Finance Institute hosted the seventh and final webinar a series to support of the Facility for Investment Ready Nature in Scotland (FIRNS).

The webinar also hosted a panel of third party project developers, who shared their advice on how to approach buyers.

  • Samuel Welsh, Project Manager, Forest Carbon
  • Tony Price, Business Development Manager, Moors for the Future Partnership
  • Sarah Brownlie, Project Manager, Wilder Carbon

If you have any further questions or comments, please contact firns@nature.scot.