Climate change, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and human well-being remain some of the major concerns faced by humans. These issues are all addressed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envisioned for 2030. Despite the fact that these issues are known to be highly interconnected, initiatives to address them often treat them independently, resulting in tradeoffs and setbacks in our progress on UN SDGs. Consequently, there is a need for a more integrated approach which will reduce trade-offs and promote synergies in addressing these issues (Seldon, et al., 2020). Nature-based Solutions (NbS) hold a huge potential for addressing these issues in a more integrated and cost effective manner, but they seem to remain largely underutilised.
What are Nature-based Solutions?
Simply put, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are actions aligned with nature aimed at helping societies achieve sustainable development. These actions include protecting, managing, and restoring the environment to solve societal issues while also benefiting human well-being and biodiversity. For example, the conservation of sand dunes to provide protection against tsunamis. Sound NbS should always contribute to enhancing biodiversity and be aligned with natural processes. As a result, activities such as planting monocultures of foreign species do not qualify as sound NbS and can result in maladaptation (Seldon, et al., 2020; UNDRR, 2021). Misusing the NbS concept could result in harm to nature and people, and to avoid that, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has established the first global standard for NbS which should be used when designing, assessing and scaling-up NbS. Given how much the environment interacts and intersects with all we do, it is paramount that we work with nature rather than against it in order to address numerous challenges faced by humanity and achieve sustainable development.
The concept of NbS builds on the understanding that when nature functions well, it is capable of providing humans with numerous services and benefits – Ecosystem services. An example of such services commonly used in NbS is the role tree roots play in preventing erosion by holding soil in place. Many features of our environment such as forests, mangroves, sand dunes, peatlands, salt marshes, etc. are capable of mitigating hazards when they function well. Examples of how some of these features can be used to address climate change and natural disasters will be covered in the next sections.
Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change as “actions that reduce the rate of climate change”. A key aspect of mitigating climate change involves storing and sequestering greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) in order to reduce their level in the atmosphere and prevent the planet from warming to higher temperatures. Certain ecosystems in our environment such as forests, mangroves, and peatlands, are capable of storing and sequestering significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Mangroves can sequester four times more carbon than rainforests while peatlands are the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock (UNDRR, 2021). The services provided by these ecosystems are relied on when designing NbS for climate change mitigation. Examples of NbS to mitigate climate change include but are not limited to afforestation; revegetating land with grasses, shrubs and trees; restoring peatlands; restoring mangroves; and restoring wetlands by increasing the interconnectivity of their water flows (UNDRR, 2021). NbS for climate change mitigation also involves conserving and sustainably managing these vital ecosystems in order to prevent their loss and degradation which would result in the release of stored greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere.
Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change Adaptation and Disasters Risk Reduction
Climate change affects global temperatures, sea levels and rainfall patterns and is partly responsible for the increasing frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters such as storms, floods, drought, wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes. The number of disasters related to a weather, climate or water hazard have increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years (1970-2019). The economic losses from these disasters amount to US$ 202 million daily and 115 people continue to die daily due to these disasters. NbS such as restoring wetlands can be used to reduce the frequency and intensity of climate related disasters such as storms. Protecting forests can also help in dealing with the rising sea level and heavy rainfall from climate change as forests can be used to retain water. Forests also aid in stabilising slopes, therefore by protecting them we can also reduce the risk of non-climate hazards such as earthquakes and landslides. Adding trees and wetlands in our cities can help reduce heat and attenuate floods. These and many other NbS used for climate change and disaster risk reduction are intended to make people more resilient and less vulnerable to natural disasters. For example, the storm Jeanne in 2004 caused 6000 casualties in Haiti which is bare-hilled but only 18 casualties in the Dominican Republic which is well-forested. The presence of a well functioning forest helped to make people in the Dominican Republic more resilient and less vulnerable to the storm.
Other Benefits of Nature-based Solutions
The beauty of NbS is that they result in a win-win situation. When implemented they can offer many other simultaneous benefits such as enhancing biodiversity and improving human well-being. Scientific research reveals that natural ecosystems continue to decline dramatically and that the number of species threatened with extinction continue to rise. As a result, activities that enhance biodiversity are of great importance. Enhancing biodiversity will help ecosystems to function well, and well-functioning ecosystems can provide humans with numerous services and benefits such as food, clean air, water, disease protection, etc. NbS can further contribute to human well-being by creating jobs, generating sustainable sources of income, and even reducing gender gaps through the involvement of men and women in the implementation of these solutions.
Now that you know what NbS are and what they can be used for, what can you do about that? You can act in favour of NbS in your sphere of influence! If you are part of a government institution, you can act by promoting policies that encourage NbS. You can also act by encouraging the funding and implementation of these solutions by the government. If you are part of the private sector, you can act by investing in and implementing NbS. Investing in NbS, can help private businesses become more resilient to the risks that climate change poses to their activities as well as enable them to access new business opportunities. Members of the civil society can also promote NbS by raising awareness on the concept and partnering with their government, community, and private sector to implement these solutions. In order for NbS to be successful, it is vital that all stakeholders be involved in the implementation including youths, women, indigenous people, and local communities. Inclusive NbS have a higher chance of success as it gives all stakeholders ownership of the project and enhances innovation.
Resources to Learn More:
IUCN. (2020, July). Ensuring effective nature-based solutions. Retrieved from https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/iucn_issues_brief_-_nbs_standard_eng.pdf
Seldon, N., Chausson, A., Berry, P., Girardin, C., Smith, A., & Turner, B. (2020). Understanding the value and limits of nature-based solutions to climate change and other global challenges. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B, 375(1794), 1-12. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0120
UNDRR. (2021). Nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction. Geneva. Retrieved from https://www.preventionweb.net/publication/words-action-nature-based-solutions-disaster-risk-reduction