By Dr Indu K Murthy.
With the climate crisis intensifying, natural disasters are becoming more frequent worldwide. This is partly due to climate change — much of it man-made — and partly due to the way we manage (or mismanage) our land and natural resources. It’s high time that we paused, pondered, and learnt from nature, which offers solutions to many of our emergent problems.
Back to roots
Nature-based solutions (NbS), which has gained global attention recently, is an umbrella term for a range of approaches — inspired and supported by nature — for tackling various socio-environmental challenges. The concept builds on the ecosystem approach, which aims to holistically manage land, water, and other natural resources in a way that promotes conservation, restoration, and sustainable use in an equitable manner. NbS are cost effective, have multiple benefits, and can be applied to diverse challenges including carbon emissions, food and water insecurity, and improving human health and well-being. For instance, a pro-nature management of ecosystems can help prevent the emergence of pathogens like COVID-19 as destruction of biodiversity, habitat and domestication of wild species increases the probability of dangerous pathogens jumping from wild animals to human beings.
NbS take a variety of forms, including green and blue infrastructure initiatives like forest and wetland restoration, climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry, and urban forestry. They can also be combined with ‘gray’ (built) solutions in hybrid initiatives. For example, hybrid measures have been adopted for restoring watersheds by reengineering waterways to prevent flooding, using bioremediation to improve water quality, and managing groundwater recharge to reduce flood risk.
Interestingly, such interventions have been prevalent since the 19th century, when massive reforestation programmes were implemented in many countries to meet the wood requirements of a growing population, or to address the flooding of downstream regions due to large-scale deforestation. Thus, NbS is a tried and tested approach that can be combined with modern technology for radical solutions: for instance, with early-warning systems to track river height during floods, or with climate-smart agriculture to increase people’s resilience.
The Paris Agreement addresses climate change mitigation and adaptation by establishing targets for reducing harmful emissions on the one hand, and enhancing human well-being on the other. Europe’s Green Deal is one such initiative that promotes green activities like recycling and sustainable infrastructure development; maintenance and advancement of renewable energy sources; and restoration of ecosystems like wetlands and forests. Indonesia’s National Medium-Term Development Plan for 2020–2024 and Colombia’s ecosystem-based disaster-risk-reduction roadmap are other instances.
Nature-based solutions are relevant for several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to climate and ecosystems issues. They also figure in initiatives, like the Sendai Framework, which discusses national disaster-risk-reduction strategies, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). Prominent among other initiatives are the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which includes elements on sustainable land management, and the call by the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration for restoring 350 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2030.
A win-win formula
The inclusion of NbS in national plans and policies can help countries align with and achieve their climate goals. However, they need to be supported through enabling ecosystems. This begins with ensuring that different focal points and departments within the government coordinate to harness synergies. Alternatively, NbS can be facilitated by introducing regulatory and financial instruments, like in Switzerland, where the federal government incentivises implementation of NbS, and enforces laws on flood protection, water resource management, etc. through forest services and biodiversity management.
According to the World Economic Forum’s New Nature Economy Report, a critical shift towards nature-positive approaches (such as NbS) in three key socio-economic systems — food, land, and ocean use; infrastructure and the built environment; and energy and extractives — could result in multiple co-benefits. These transitions could, by 2030, create nearly $3.6 trillion worth of annual business opportunities and 191 million jobs.
Integrating NbS into national policies, thus, goes much beyond helping governments advance the national SDG agenda and meeting international reporting requirements. It is an opportunity to create inclusive economies and societies, and, eventually, a resilient and prosperous world.
Dr Indu K Murthy is Principal Research Scientist in the Adaptation and Risk Analysis team in CSTEP.