What's a Nature-Based Solution? It's Hard to Say -- And That's a Problem

What's a Nature-Based Solution? It's Hard to Say -- And That's a Problem

"Nature based solutions” are all the rage these days. At COP27, the Biden administration announced a Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, designed to serve as a centerpiece of US climate strategy, driving projects from the installation of green roofs on federal buildings to the restoration of oyster populations off the Gulf Coast. Other countries are implementing nature-based solutions, too -- a report published in 2020 found that almost two-thirds of countries that had joined the Paris Agreement incorporated nature-based projects into their climate plans. Philanthropists have also funneled billions of dollars into nature-based solutions over the past few years.

Nathalie Seddon: What are nature-based solutions to climate change? June 19, 2018.

Nature4Climate: COP27 Nature Based Solutions Political Uptake, November 16, 2022.

But what exactly is a nature-based solution? It’s hard to say -- and that’s a problem. Any way of restoring or protecting nature can be considered a "nature-based solution,” which can leave a lot of room for misleading environmental claims. As Molly Anderson, director of the Food Studies program at Middlebury College, told Vox:

A new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPBES-Food) suggests that the term "nature-based solutions is a weakly defined and depoliticized concept” designed to "legitimize pathways that stray little from the status quo.”

In fact, some companies have adopted "nature-based solutions” even as they continue to pollute. The buzzword is often applied to carbon offsets, which launder carbon from high-emitting companies into sequestration campaigns, allowing these companies to avoid changing their ways. But offsets are no substitute for emissions reduction -- the status quo won’t solve an ever-worsening climate crisis. An actual "nature-based solution” would address the biggest threat to the world’s ecosystems by directly cutting emissions.

Bloomberg: These Trees Are Not What They Seem, April 20, 2021.

FT: Carbon capture | The hopes, challenges and controversies, April 5, 2022.

Oxford Martin School: "Value and limits of working with nature to address climate change” Prof Nathalie Seddon, January 25, 2021.

WW0 COP26 Talks: Dr. Cécile Girardin, Science Lead, Oxford Biodiversity Network, November 10, 2021.

Why This Matters

Precision is a vital part of climate analysis -- as Vox put it: “Clear definitions matter, especially as countries and companies are pushed to curb or reverse their impacts on ecosystems and the climate. It’s hard to hold them to account if you don’t know what they’re doing.”

Specificity can help clarify which strategies are actually preserving the world’s ecosystems, and which are helping high emitters avoid accountability. Many of these nature-based solutions speak for themselves -- no trendy buzzword needed. "Did you know that mangroves in intertidal areas can buffer storm surge in a way that can protect low-lying coastal development?” Jen Hunter, an ecologist and resident director of the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Northern California, told Vox.

TED: Power-sharing for nature-based solutions to climate change | Fiona Nunan, August 31, 2022.

The Economist: Mangroves | How they help the ocean, March 9, 2020.

The Potential of Nature-Based Solutions

When we delineate the many programs that fall under the nature-based-solution umbrella instead of treating nature-based solutions as a substitute for phasing out fossil fuels, it’s easy to see the concrete benefits that they provide. Forests, for example, are crucial carbon sinks -- but increasingly, they are compromised by deforestation and wildfires. Certain programs and strategies can help preserve these ecosystems and mitigate climate change in the process. From protecting elephants that help African forests store greater amounts of carbon, or safeguarding Maine’s 17 million acres of forest against deforestation, the possibilities are nearly limitless and vary from region-to-region.

Source: Global Forest Watch / World Resources Institute, April 2022.

CongoPeat: Exploring the Central Congo Basin Peatlands, November 9, 2021.

BBC: The Tragedy Of Deforestation | Climate Change | The Facts, November 11, 2021.

Conservation International: What on Earth is Irrecoverable Carbon?, March 31, 2021.

Habitat restoration can also help communities cope with the effects of climate change. Beach and marsh preservation can prevent catastrophic flooding, while promoting biodiversity can stop zoonotic spillover in order to avoid future pandemics.

Nature-based solutions can also aid in reimagining the food system, which generates 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is increasingly under threat as climate change intensifies. Algae, for instance, can be a cheap source of protein, while regenerative practices can make farming systems more sustainable.

UN: John Kerry at UN Ocean Conference | "We can not separate the ocean from the climate crisis," June 28, 2022.

TED: The Ocean’s Ingenious Climate Solutions | Susan Ruffo, March 13, 2022.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Nature-based Solutions to Climate, Biodiversity, and Pandemic Threats, November 2, 2021.

New York Times Events: Inside the Most Promising Nature-Based Solutions, November 6, 2021.

Our Changing Climate: Can Seaweed Save the Planet?, May 6, 2022.

Reuters: Satellites measure cow burps from space, May 4, 2022.

UN Environment Programme: Investments in Nature-based solutions need to triple by 2030, May 27, 2021.