Nature-based solutions (NBS) are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. These solutions address our biodiversity and climate crises in tandem, and are one of the most cost-effective and tangible solutions we have in our policy toolbelt. They are so effective that scientists have said that 37% of all climate mitigation can come from nature to meet global emissions targets by 2030 – and half of that potential is considered cost-effective at a global standard, even when taking restraints such as food security, biodiversity conservation, and fiber security into consideration. In short, they’re powerful, and up until now, underrated solutions to the crises we face.
Nine youth delegates from the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation had the privilege to attend UNFCCC COP25 in December of 2019; from those nine, a handful of us focused on how these solutions presented by nature were addressed at this conference. Over the course of a year NBS gained serious momentum around the world and this was well-represented at COP25. While not a formal item on the negotiation agenda, over 250 side-events focusing on nature-based solutions were held throughout the two weeks, and many references were made to the potential of these solutions by national governments in their policy discussions. From blue carbon, to financing carbon markets, to emissions trading, afforestation, Indigenous rights and beyond, solutions offered through nature were a hot-topic at COP25.
However, with this rapid momentum arose some notable contention. The term NBS, or sometimes called natural climate solutions, has been critiqued as an institutional phrase that is being imposed upon people who have held the knowledge of nature’s power for millenia. Nature is powerful, and to many Indigenous peoples around the world that is a pivotal aspect of self-identity. Of course trees should be planted, and ecosystems restored – those that critique the term say that it’s presented as a novel idea when in reality, it is standing to reverse the very processes of destruction that have caused our climate and biodiversity crises. Many large corporations have seen the market for NBS as an opportunity to plant monocultures to sequester carbon and gain carbon credits in exchange. When these issues are combined, the term NBS may leave some dissatisfied.
While recognizing this contention, we know that the core of the concept remains true: nature is our most powerful ally, and we must protect, manage, and restore our ecosystems to see any effective change. We are not on track to reach the biodiversity targets embodied within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With unsustainable consumption patterns, the increasing intensity of extractive economies, and the accumulation of wealth we have unleashed a planetary emergency. We are in need of transformational change to safeguard life on our planet; with this next decade being called the decade of ecosystem restoration, NBS are likely not falling to the wayside.
So, where to from here? Without NBS, reaching the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 C, let alone 1.5 C, will be impossible. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind the tension surrounding the term, and that it cannot be used as a replacement for rapid fossil fuel phase-out. Going forward, it is therefore necessary that countries invest in NBS in a manner that aligns with human rights, indigenous knowledge as well as ecosystem protection and restoration. Countries must acknowledge the importance of NBS and include them as part of their updated and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (a country’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and uphold the Paris Agreement). Countries such as New Zealand, China and Costa Rica, have already called for increased ambition on NBS. More countries need to wake up to nature’s potential as we move towards the next negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity and COP26.
Ultimately, our climate, people and nature are interdependent, and NBS are an important part of the solution. While addressing the causes of the joint biodiversity and climate crises, they will also help us deal with the consequences of them. Healthy ecosystems help slow global warming by capturing and storing vast amounts of carbon. At the same time they defend against impacts and long-term hazards such as soil erosion, drought and reduced soil nutrient content. NBS represent a significant opportunity to increase climate ambition for all countries, and must be applied with urgency to achieve a just, equitable and sustainable world that meets the needs of both present and future generations.
Written by Hailey May and Andrea Byfuglien, Youth Delegates to COP 25
Griscom et al. (2017). Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 114(44), 11645-11650.www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1710465114