What are nature-based solutions and how can they be harnessed to tackle climate change?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Santiago Gowland, CEO, Rainforest Alliance

  • Nature-based solutions refers to actions and policies that protect, manage and restore ecosystems to address socio-environmental challenges.
  • Despite the success of current nature-based solutions, much more investment is needed to unlock their potential to tackle climate change.
  • What’s needed is a policy overhaul of agriculture and forestry practices towards repairing, restoring, and regenerating nature and communities.

It’s been two years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told us that nature-based solutions could help achieve 37% of necessary emissions reductions. Although they were a key theme at COP26 recently, these solutions have received too little attention and investment – why is that?

We know that regenerative agriculture works to rehabilitate nature and helps mitigate climate change and that forests are a cost-effective carbon-capture “technology”. But deforestation and forest degradation continue at an alarming rate despite commitments to deforestation-free supply chains.

We have a powerful tool at our fingertips to combat this global crisis: nature. But will we maximize its potential, and in time?

What is the definition of a nature-based solution?

Nature-based solutions refer to a collection of actions and policies that harness the power of nature to protect and restore ecosystems while addressing societal challenges to simultaneously safeguard human well-being and biodiversity.

Think of nature-based solutions as an umbrella concept that covers a whole range of ecosystem-related approaches, all of which address societal challenges. These approaches can be placed into five main categories: ecosystem restoration approaches; issue-specific ecosystem-related approaches; infrastructure-related approaches; ecosystem-based management approaches; and ecosystem protection approaches.

These solutions integrate protection, restoration and/or sustainable management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems (i.e. forests, peatlands and grasslands), aquatic systems and working lands such as crop lands. They rely on nature as a life support system and for agriculture, centre around nature-positive production approaches that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost ecosystem health and simultaneously reduce climate impacts such as flooding, soil erosion and dry conditions.

What is an example of a nature-based solution?

The wildly successful forest communities that the Rainforest Alliance works with in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve is an excellent and multifaceted example. They harvest timber sustainably, extracting only one tree per hectare every 40 years and maintaining nurseries of native species to plant. They also collect tree nuts and xate (palm fronds) from the forest floor. As a result, these communities have maintained a remarkable near-zero deforestation rate for more than 20 years in a region otherwise devastated by deforestation – and they’ve done so while building local economies.

nature-based solutions
Victor Otoniel Quixchán España, with training from the Rainforest Alliance, demonstrates how tree growth is measured in the field to teach the young people of Uaxactún about the critical role their community’s forests play in sequestering carbon and regulating the global climate. Image: Sergio Izquierdo.

Another essential nature-based solution is regenerative farming, which works to harness the power of nature rather than depleting it. Among the many benefits, regenerative farming improves soil health – and healthy soil is the biggest carbon pool on the planet. For instance, nurturing existing shade trees and planting new ones amidst crops – a regenerative practice called agroforestry – not only increases carbon storage, but it also creates a protective canopy that helps to regulate temperature and humidity, boost biodiversity and improve productivity.

Why are nature-based solutions overlooked?

For one thing, finance around nature-based solutions is still not adequate. The amount of public finance spent on nature-based solutions as a percentage of all climate finance has risen from 3% in 2016, to 8% in 2018. While this is progress, much more investment is needed to unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions.

Some leading companies are accelerating nature-based solutions approaches and are starting to transform agriculture and food value chains. Unfortunately, much of the world still seems to favour destruction for short term gains over the longer-term benefits of sustainable management. The value of the ecosystem services that “nature capital” provides is not well understood, including how nature-based solutions could represent cost savings over technical fixes. Nature

What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

Biodiversity loss and climate change are occurring at unprecedented rates, threatening humanity’s very survival. Nature is in crisis, but there is hope. Investing in nature can not only increase our resilience to socioeconomic and environmental shocks, but it can help societies thrive.

There is strong recognition within the Forum that the future must be net-zero and nature-positive. The Nature Action Agenda initiative, within the Platform for Accelerating Nature-based Solutions, is an inclusive, multistakeholder movement catalysing economic action to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

Dynamic and flourishing natural ecosystems are the foundation for human wellbeing and prosperity. The Future of Nature and Business report found that nature-positive transitions in key sectors are good for the economy and could generate up to $10.1 trillion in annual business value and create 395 million jobs by 2030.

To support these transitions, the Platform for Accelerating Nature-based Solutions has convened a community of Champions for Nature promoting the sustainable management of the planet for the good of the economy and society. The Nature Action Agenda also recently launched the 100 Million Farmers initiative, which will drive the transition of the food and agriculture system towards a regenerative model, as well as the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative to create an urban development model that is in harmony with nature.

Get in touch if you would like to collaborate on these efforts or join one of our communities.

Finally, there is limited technical expertise within governments to identify nature-based solutions targets in order to integrate them into development strategies. Integrating nature-based solutions into adaptation plans and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change – requires capacity building for a robust system that includes targets that can be monitored and measured.

What must change so nature-based solutions can be maximized?

A fast overhaul of the entire food and agriculture systems is needed to shift market dynamics from driving soil and forest degradation towards starting to repair, restore, and regenerate nature and communities. Improving livelihoods is at the centre of system change: you can’t have thriving forests without thriving communities. Smallholders and farmers need green finance to reduce the use of chemical pesticides, and to move towards regenerative fertilizers. Mainstreaming the supply of sustainable ingredients, commodities and products needs to be matched by raising consumer awareness to create sustainable demand.

Improving livelihoods is at the centre of system change: you can’t have thriving forests without thriving communities. —Santiago Gowland.

Global standards for nature-based solutions like those developed by the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) are key to advancing a rigorous, consistent and accountable framework for implementation.

Lastly, we need large-scale investments at an international level from both public and private sources. Such investments must triple by 2030 and quadruple by 2050 in order to close the financing gap of $4.1 trillion if the world is to meet climate change, biodiversity conservation and land degradation targets.

How can policymakers make the most of nature-based solutions?

Three things are needed to mainstream nature-based solutions: the technical assistance to transform agriculture and forestry practices to mainstream sustainable supply of products; greater transparency and incentives for sustainable demand and conscious choices by citizens; and policy subsidies and incentives supporting the transformation of the food, agriculture and forestry sectors into net carbon positive sectors. Without alignment of regulatory incentives and rigorous policing of compliance violations, it is difficult for sectors to shift at the speed required.

This agenda will require governments to empower local communities, regularize land titling in tropical forests, elevate the voices of Indigenous Peoples, and engage the corporate and civil society sectors behind a shared vision of sustainable production. Without a dramatic shift in practices, key ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest that are at a tipping point will collapse, creating massive social, economic and environmental consequences. It’s a matter of national security for governments to embrace this agenda with courage and leadership.

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