Can 'nature-based solutions' be more than a buzzword?

Nature-based solutions to the climate crisis have become popular, but they cannot be seen as a panacea to climate change. Photo by: Eko Prianto / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

MADRID — “Nature-based solutions” have received top billing at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

The term, which describes a wide range of efforts to protect and restore ecosystems that can store carbon, mitigate climate-change impacts, and protect biodiversity, is scattered throughout the COP25 schedule. From the main plenary hall to side events on topics ranging from mangroves to entrepreneurship to cities, nature-based solutions have stood out as one of the more optimistic-sounding components of a negotiation process that is struggling to match the urgency of the climate crisis.

“Nature-based solutions aren’t an offset mechanism for business as usual. We need to rapidly decarbonize our economies from the source.”

— Alexandre Chausson, researcher, University of Oxford’s Nature-Based Solutions Initiative

The phrase received a significant boost in prominence in September at U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ climate summit in New York, where he established nature-based solutions as one of the main tracks through which participants could make commitments. China and New Zealand co-led that process, and the United Nations Environment Programme and a host of large international NGOs have been enthusiastic supporters.

Nature-based solutions have even garnered the endorsement of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist and Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

While few dispute that preserving and investing in natural systems must be a key component of the battle against climate change, the sudden popularity of this broad agenda has raised some questions about what makes it so appealing at a time when global carbon emissions continue to rise and climate predictions grow more dire.

Some experts and activists warn that without clearer definitions and principles to guide these efforts, the term “nature-based solutions” could be used to justify projects that harm local communities or deflect attention away from the need to pursue rapid reductions in carbon emissions.

“Nature-based solutions do have a lot of potential, but what matters is how they’re implemented,” said Alexandre Chausson, a researcher with the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative at the University of Oxford.

On the eve of COP25, a group of civil society organizations circulated a talking-points memo — which Devex obtained — to guide their engagement during the global summit. Among its recommendations was an agreement not to use the term “nature-based solutions” at all.

The Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance reported to its members that indigenous and farmers’ movements had begun to reject the phrase out of concern that it is “becoming a meaningless term that legitimises harmful approaches.”

“We will therefore stop using the term NBS to describe the real solutions based on ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead we will be using the specific terms that we want to advocate for, such as restoration of biodiverse ecosystems, agroecology etc, under a rights based approach,” wrote Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator at ActionAid International.

From the perspective of these civil society groups, those concerns appeared justified by developments during the first week of the climate summit. A coalition including Shell, Chevron, BP, Woodside Energy, mining company BHP, and the Arbor Day Foundation, which advocates for tree planting, joined forces to create the Markets for Natural Climate Solutions initiative, under the leadership of the International Emissions Trading Association.

Their launch event on Dec. 5 was interrupted when protesters in the audience stood up, put their hands over their ears, and walked out of the room.

“The problem is that a lot of these pledges at the moment aren’t clear, or they really focus on tree planting,” Chausson said, adding that functional ecosystems are complex and that simply converting land into monoculture tree plantations to store carbon will not achieve climate resilience.

“But it is also important to bear in mind that nature-based solutions cannot be seen as a panacea to climate change. It is something that needs to be done in addition to reducing the use of fossil fuels.”

— Sandeep Sengupta, global coordinator, IUCN’s climate change portfolio

Another persistent concern is that fossil fuel companies and high-emitting countries appear interested in using these kinds of pledges to avoid confronting a more difficult reality — that limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius requires steep reductions in fossil fuels. Instead, financial institutions have poured an estimated $1.9 trillion into the fossil fuel sector since the Paris Agreement was negotiated in December 2015.

“Nature-based solutions aren’t an offset mechanism for business as usual. We need to rapidly decarbonize our economies from the source,” Chausson said.

“We need transformational change. That means going beyond incremental change. It means restructuring our economies to work within the limits of the biosphere while focusing on people’s well-being … Thinking of nature-based solutions as market mechanisms is narrow-sighted, and it completely ignores the social and ecological complexities that are associated with these approaches,” he added.

Experts also point out that since natural systems are affected — and often harmed — by climate change, the more the planet warms, the less effective many of these so-called solutions will become over time. That means they cannot be a substitute for emissions reductions, but are merely one piece of an increasingly urgent and multisectoral response to the climate emergency.

In an effort to add some clarity to this rapidly emerging field, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is in the midst of a process to create a “global standard for the design and verification of nature-based solutions.” The IUCN, which is a broad membership organization comprised of governments and NGOs, is undertaking a public consultation to gather feedback about the criteria and principles that should guide this aspect of the climate action picture.

“Nature-based solutions – centred on the protection, restoration and sustainable management of the world’s ecosystems – have a vitally important role in addressing climate change,” Sandeep Sengupta, global coordinator of IUCN’s climate change portfolio, wrote to Devex.

“But it is also important to bear in mind that nature-based solutions cannot be seen as a panacea to climate change. It is something that needs to be done in addition to reducing the use of fossil fuels to meet the 2 and 1.5 degree C temperature goals set under the Paris Agreement,” he added.

Instead of seeing nature-based solutions used by industry to offset emissions, a more encouraging trend would be for institutions like multilateral development banks to commit to ending their support for fossil fuels and then redirect those resources toward vital ecosystems, said Collin Rees, senior campaigner at Oil Change International.

The people and communities who have managed those ecosystems for generations, not multinational corporations, should be the ones determining what those investments look like and setting the agenda for a global effort to protect and restore natural systems, Rees said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.