The 4 Returns framework

The 4 Returns framework

A holistic approach and practical tool for landscape restoration, based on many years of experience working in the field, using a language all stakeholders understand and that inspires action. It delivers returns to people, nature, communities, and businesses, and is based on the ecosystem approach that was endorsed by COP5 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2000. The 4 Returns Framework uses 4 Returns of impact in three landscape zones, during a period of more than 20 years, and consists of five process elements to make it happen with stakeholders. It was published by the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management in 2012 and updated to the final publication in 2015.

Natural returns

The increase of the health (including its ecological functionality and resilience) of the ecosystem in the landscape

Financial returns

The long-term economic resilience and prosperity of communities and businesses 

Social returns

Strengthening communities in landscapes by increasing livelihood opportunities (for example, jobs), community engagement, and social resilience 

 Return of inspiration

An increased connection to the landscape, motivating stewardship 

Natural zone

A spacious and healthy natural zone provides resilience against climate change, disease, and other threats. The aim is to regenerate a landscape’s ecological foundation by restoring native vegetation, natural wildlife habitats, and water availability. This helps to boost and protect biodiversity over time. It is one of the 3 Zones used in the 4 Returns Framework to help all stakeholders understand the complexity of a landscape. Over time, every landscape should strive to achieve a fair balance between the 3 Zones. 

Combined zone

The combined zone combines sustainable production and the regeneration of biodiversity and ecological functioning. The goal in this zone is to shift to sustainable production systems, such as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, rotational grazing, polyculture plantations, paludiculture (wet agriculture), silvo-fisheries, and sustainable aquaculture-mangrove systems. It is one of the 3 Zones used in the 4 Returns Framework to help all stakeholders understand the complexity of a landscape. Over time, every landscape should strive to achieve a fair balance between the 3 Zones.

Economic zone

The economic zone delivers sustainable economic production with dedicated areas for value-adding activities, such as processing. Also in the economic zone, nature can be integrated, for example, through green-grey infrastructure or green cities. Examples of economic zones are hard infrastructure, such as urban areas and industrial complexes, as well as monocultural agriculture and tree plantations. It is one of the 3 Zones used in the 4 Returns Framework to help all stakeholders understand the complexity of a landscape. Over time, every landscape should strive to achieve a fair balance between the 3 Zones.

Other terms


A holistic approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems. It seeks to optimise the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat, and how and where it is produced. Agroecology is concurrently a science, a set of practices, and a social movement. It has evolved as a concept over recent decades to expand in scope from a focus on fields and farms to encompass the ecological, socio-cultural, technological, economic, and political dimensions of food systems, from production to consumption.

Adapted from FAO, https://www.fao.org/agroecology/overview/en/

Carbon credits

Carbon credits represent units of measurement that quantify the reduction or removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, achieved through a range of methods including biological processes (e.g., photosynthesis in plants and trees) and innovative technologies (e.g., improved cookstoves, carbon capture and storage). Additionally, geological processes such as carbon dioxide storage in underground reservoirs contribute to generating carbon credits. These credits are generated and certified based on demonstrated reductions in carbon emissions or successful carbon sequestration, adhering to recognised carbon standards.

Carbon project developer

A person or organisation responsible for identifying, designing, and implementing projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They might work independently or with investors, project partners, and technical experts to bring projects to fruition. 

Carbon sequestration

The removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, either through biological processes (for example, photosynthesis in plants and trees) or geological processes (for example, storage of carbon dioxide in underground reservoirs) 


CO₂ equivalents, often abbreviated as CO₂e, refer to a standardized unit of measurement used to express the global warming potential of various greenhouse gases in terms of their impact on climate change, relative to carbon dioxide (CO₂). It allows for the comparison of different greenhouse gases based on their ability to trap heat in the atmosphere over a specific period, typically 100 years. For instance, methane (CH₄) has a higher global warming potential than CO₂ over the short term, so its emissions are often expressed in CO₂ equivalents to provide a clearer picture of its overall climate impact. 

Emission reduction and avoidance

This refers to the total amount of CO₂-equivalents that could be reduced through a change of practice in various sectors. Emissions arising from an altered practice are compared with emissions from a business-as-usual scenario (baseline), to result in the total amount of reduced emissions. Emission reductions differ from emission avoidance in that, for the latter, the business-as-usual scenario is not yet implemented. So, the amount of CO₂ avoidance is based on hypothetical baseline assumptions. 

The Ecosystem Approach

A strategy for the integrated management of land, water, and living resources that equitably promotes conservation and sustainable use.

Source: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2004. The Ecosystem Approach, (CBD Guidelines) Montreal: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 50 p.

Holistic landscape restoration

This involves restoring degraded landscapes by addressing their social, ecological, and economic functions, ensuring their sustainability and resilience for the future. It recognises the interconnectedness of physical, chemical, biological, ecological, economic, socio-cultural, spiritual, and inspirational processes within landscapes, emphasising the need for integrated, large-scale, and long-term approaches. By taking a holistic approach, problems can be addressed comprehensively, leading to lasting positive change that benefits both nature and communities.

Impact measurement and impact management

Impact measurement is the process of quantitatively and qualitatively evaluating the impacts of an organisation or project. Impact measurement is one step in impact management. Impact management is adapting your strategy and actions based on lessons gained by impact measurement, with the final aim of creating as much positive impact as possible and avoiding negative impact. Measuring impact helps a project and its stakeholders understand and learn from the progress of their efforts and their impact. This can help to: 

  • Show the impact of restoration actions and — if needed — adapt your approach to improve the impact of projects in the landscape
  • Encourage others to replicate successful projects
  • Inspire financiers to continue funding or begin to invest where they see progress

Knowledge broker

Brings knowledge to stakeholders in formats that meet their needs. Has good technical knowledge and the ability to translate and communicate that knowledge 


An approach to multi-stakeholder learning journeys, also called systemic or social (innovation) labs 


A socio-ecological system that consists of interconnected natural and/or human-modified land and water ecosystems. It is influenced by geology, climate, flora, fauna, and micro-organisms, as well as historical, economic, socio-cultural, and political processes. Where water is the dominant feature, this can also be referred to as a wetland landscape; where oceans are predominant, this can be referred to as a seascape.

Modified from the Little Sustainable Landscape Book

Landscape approach

A conceptual framework whereby stakeholders in a landscape aim to reconcile competing social, economic, and environmental objectives. A landscape approach aims to ensure a full range of local-level needs are met, while also considering the goals of stakeholders, such as national governments or the international community. A minimum of 100,000 hectares is generally needed to implement a landscape approach, although there are exceptions (for example, offshore islands, or other natural landscape areas, such as a watershed or high plain). 

Landscape and stakeholder analysis

This provides a context of what is happening and has previously happened in the landscape in terms of ecology, geology, climate, culture, economics, policy, social networks, and more. It investigates past and present initiatives to identify what could be developed further and draws lessons from past failures. 

Land degradation

The result of human-induced actions that exploit land causing its utility, biodiversity, soil fertility, and overall health to decline

Source: UNCCD

​​Landscape finance

This is the provision and management of all financial resources necessary to support the actions and processes required to realise long-term holistic landscape restoration. It includes flexible long-term funding to support processes related to the development, operation, and management of a landscape partnership. It also captures financial streams tailored to support nature restoration, sustainable land use, and the development of a commercially viable, scalable, and investable portfolio of businesses that drives holistic restoration of the landscape. 

Landscape lab

A transformation process for a landscape, that supports local stakeholders and changemakers to engage and mobilise towards a thriving ecosystem and community. In the labs, changemakers identify critical leverage points (also called acupuncture points) in their landscape and co-create strategies and solutions. A landscape partnership is responsible for maintaining this process during the 20+ Years of implementation. 

Landscape partnership

Also commonly known as multi-stakeholder partnerships, refers to a strong, trusted, and long-lasting coalition of organisations in the landscape from across sectors and communities working towards a resilient landscape regeneration with a shared landscape vision

Landscape plan

A document including a clear and concise outline of the characteristics of landscapes in which you work, the 4 Losses of the landscape and potential 4 Returns, what has been achieved, challenges and lessons learnt, the 20+ Year vision, opportunities in the 3 Zones, and funding needs for the future. Landscape plans are compiled from the perspective of the entire landscape and will evolve as a living, breathing resource for landscape teams and other stakeholders to work with. Lastly, visioning and planning are part of any landscape restoration programme. The process of creating a landscape plan can assist in this visioning process for an entire landscape to help develop or sharpen strategy, identify opportunities, gaps, and challenges, and create alignment and understanding between partners in a landscape. It can also serve as a basis for direct fundraising by partners themselves. 

Landscape restoration practitioners

Any individual or organisation that works on (holistic) landscape restoration and is based physically in the landscape 

Landscape restoration

According to experts:
1) Turning degraded areas of land into healthy, fertile, working landscapes where local communities, ecosystems and other stakeholders can sustainably cohabit (source: IUCN)
2) The ecological process that aims to restore a natural and safe landscape for humans, wildlife, and plant communities. This process paves the way to protect our ecosystems, create economic development, help prevent natural disasters such as floods, and increase soil productivity and food supplies (source: UNCCD)

For further information, we’d also like to refer to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Society for Ecological Restoration.

Landscape stakeholders

This includes all people, flora and fauna, organisations, and businesses that have an interest in a landscape, either because they live there, or because their livelihood depends on the landscape. This encompasses communities, farmers, businesses, NGOs, local governments, investors, and all non-human species that have no voice and often are represented by experts, community leaders, and conservationists. 

Payments for Environmental Services (PES)

A system where individuals or communities receive incentives, such as money or other rewards, for taking actions that protect or enhance the environment. It encourages sustainable practices and conservation by providing financial benefits for maintaining ecosystem services like clean water, carbon sequestration, or habitat preservation. PES programmes create economic incentives to promote environmental stewardship and strike a balance between conservation and sustainable development. 

Policy Influence

A deliberate effort to bring change to public policy decisions and processes based on a particular agenda. 


This is the translation of an idea or innovation into something concrete: an experimental action. A prototype is an early draft of a final project or initiative, and usually goes through several iterations, based on feedback from diverse stakeholders. The objective of prototyping is to test what later could become a pilot project that can be shared and scaled up.

Regenerative / 4 Returns business

A regenerative business is a business that restores the ecosystem rather than degrading it. A successful regenerative business can contribute to all the 4 Returns — inspiration, social, natural, and financial. Regenerative businesses can be found in a variety of sectors, including regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, real estate, tourism, carbon, and water services, to name a few.

Learn more on Coursera.

Regenerative organic agriculture

Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic, and spiritual well-being.

Source: Rodale Institute. For a more in-depth understanding of the various definitions of regenerative agriculture, see this article

Regenerative economy

Rather than extracting from the land and each other, this approach emphasises producing, consuming, and redistributing resources in harmony with the planet. A regenerative economy requires a strategy to build a society based on the local production of food, energy, and goods, and democratisation of how they are consumed, ensuring everyone has full access to healthy food, renewable energy, clean air and water, good jobs, and healthy living environments while supporting collective and participatory governance. Fundamentally, it’s “the application of nature’s laws and patterns of systemic health, self-organisation, self-renewal, and regenerative vitality to socioeconomic systems”.

Source: Circle Economy. See also the Doughnut Model by Kate Raworth

Regional learning lab

This is also a lab, but now instead of serving one landscape or bioregion, it is a place where the various partners involved in labs from various landscapes within one region (for example, the EU, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America) come together to exchange knowledge and experiences and find support from like-minded people and organisations. It is a support structure for several labs that share characteristics, for example because they all focus on a particular theme or are near each other. 

Theory of change

A visual representation illustrating how you envision your actions could lead to change and impact, often depicted in impact pathways. 

Theory U

A stakeholder mobilisation approach, instrumental for implementing the 5 Elements of the 4 Returns Framework, that opens the minds, hearts, and efforts of all stakeholders, fostering one shared vision, bottom-up change, and leadership. 


Areas of marsh, fen, peatland, or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish, or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres

Source: Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Article 1.1.

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