The latest attempt to brand green practices is better than it sounds.

According to book publishers, there has been a surge of interest in writing and reading about nature. Something about the way people live in our modern world, they say, encourages readers to seek reconnection with the great outdoors and its inhabitants. But to use words to convey the beauty and tragedy of the environment beyond direct human experience — and to do it well — is a rare skill indeed.

That perhaps helps to explain the clunky and chewy terminology crudely attached to efforts to preserve and protect the natural world. If a picture truly paints a thousand words, then none of them is likely to be ‘ecosystem services’. Equally, ‘green–blue infrastructure’ and ‘natural capital’ set few hearts aflutter. So what are we to make of the newcomer to this lexicon of ecology: ‘nature-based solutions’?

NBS — as almost no one yet calls it — is a newly coined umbrella term intended to sweep up all of the above phrases, add others such as ‘ecological engineering’ and ‘ecosystem-based mitigation’, and dump them into a policy-relevant pot, where sustainable practices that harness the natural world (wetlands to clean waste water, for example) can be devised, analysed and then pulled out for use by politicians, scholars and researchers. This is probably the first time you’ve heard of nature-based solutions — unless you work for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the European Commission or other select groups that have started to use the term in the past few years.

Will it catch on? It’s easy to be cynical and scoff at this latest attempt to constrain and brand work already on the margins of scientific and public awareness, but don’t let the grisly management speak put you off. ‘Nature-based solutions’ might sound like it belongs on the side of a gardener’s van, but the concept it represents is of vital and urgent significance. As the grand challenges that face society continue to build, so does the need for multidisciplinary, evidence-based strategies to, for example, protect water supplies, address habitat loss and mitigate and adapt to climate change. And if a concept is solid, then the alien words and terms that represent it have a habit of becoming familiar and bedding into everyday discourse.

Nature-based solutions may sound artificial and unusable at first, but then so, probably, did the now-widespread, accepted and useful ‘sustainable development’ and even ‘biodiversity’ when they were first written and spoken aloud — and both terms emerged into policy debate more recently than you might expect.

Still, if NBS seems poorly defined and vague, that is because it currently is — and this is where scientists come in. As specialists in conservation and sustainability point out in the journal Science of the Total Environment (C. Nesshöver et al. Sci. Tot. Environ. 579, 1215–1227; 2017), NBS will require the research community, its supporters and funders to answer a series of questions. The answers will entail identifying the specific problems for which a nature-based solution is needed, and monitoring the outcomes. Words, after all, can only take us so far.