Nature-Based Solutions for People and the Planet
The use of nature-based solutions (NbS) -- working with nature to address societal challenges to provide benefits for both biodiversity and human wellbeing -- is a key strategy in combating the climate crisis. However, the efficacy of NbS is often debated due to the focus placed on reductions to atmospheric carbon versus global temperature. And analyses show NbS offer a long-term path to temperature reductions. Next week at COP26, decision-makers must take this data and these solutions into serious consideration. Based on our current trajectory, global temperature rise will exceed the Paris Agreement's 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming and will not sufficiently slow through emissions reduction alone. We can't say it enough: the priority for reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement is decarbonizing our economy at unprecendented rates. For the residual emissions -- those we can't slash in the short term -- we need to invest in negative emissions technologies, and this includes investing in nature-based solutions.
"Nature-based solutions can help people adapt to climate change while achieving sustainable development goals, protecting biodiversity, and mitigating climate change."
Nature-based Solutions Initiative: What are nature-based solutions to climate change?, June 19, 2018.
In a recent study conducted by the Nature-based Solutions Initiative at Oxford University, where I serve as the Technical Director, we outlined "Three Steps to Natural Cooling" using NbS:
1. Protect ecosystems to prevent carbon release
2. Restore ecosystems to naturally sequester carbon
3. Improve land management for timber, crops, and grazing -- to maximize greenhouse gas emissions reductions and carbon sequestration
With decades of data collected, there is strong evidence that NbS can deliver a multitude of local benefits, socially and environmentally, including water filtration, flood control, biodiversity habitat, and improvements to human well-being. For example, restoring a stream might reduce flood impacts, improve carbon storage, and support fisheries; while preventing deforestation can protect coastlines and carbon sinks, and honor Indigenous land rights. Nature-based solutions can help people adapt to climate change while achieving sustainable development goals, protecting biodiversity, and mitigating climate change. Unlike technology-based carbon sequestration methods, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), NbS can provide safe and durable storage for every ton of carbon emitted.
Oxford Martin School: Value and limits of working with nature to address climate change, January 25, 2021.
"...NbS must be designed and implemented with longevity in mind."
Oxford Martin School: Evaluating and investing in Nature-based Solutions with Nathalie Seddon & Cameron Hepburn, June 17, 2021.
What leaders decide on at COP26 will matter for years to come. Based on our analysis, NbS have the ability to reduce temperature rise. But because land-use changes will continue long past the achievement of net zero and peak temperature rise, NbS must be designed and implemented with longevity in mind. This means they are ecologically sound, socially equitable, and that their long-term carbon sink potential is closely considered.
"There exists an urgent need to increase the flow of investment to high-quality natural solutions. Currently, NbS receive less than 3% of existing climate mitigation financing..."
When it comes to measuring success, utilizing carbon reduction versus temperature rise as the primary metric poses a threat to biodiversity, human rights, and the climate. The success of NbS should be measured according to a multitude of metrics, including those for carbon dynamics, biodiversity across multiple trophic levels, and socioeconomic factors, including women's empowerment and youth employment. Additionally, in implementing NbS, it should be noted that they are:
- Not a substitute for the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels
- Inclusive of a wide range of ecosystems beyond forests, including land and sea
- Implemented with the full engagement and consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities with respect for their cultural and ecological rights
- Designed explicitly to provide measurable benefits for biodiversity
At COP26, developing a "mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development" -- as established in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement -- will prove to be a central issue. There exists an urgent need to increase the flow of investment to high-quality natural solutions. Currently, NbS receive less than 3% of existing climate mitigation financing -- a dramatic underinvestment considering the significant contribution they represent when it comes to global temperature reduction. This allocation of funds is also critical for decision-makers next week.
Moving forward, the race to net zero is uncompromisingly about both decarbonizing our economy and our atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. This task is beyond Herculean -- but it can be achieved by investing in ecologically sound, socioeconomically just, and net-zero aligned nature-based solutions.