Nature based solutions: Old wine in new bottles or a necessary evolution?
There has been an unprecedented shift in global perceptions and appetite for action on climate change over the past several years. The shift is due to first-hand experience of the devastating impacts of climate change, the unprecedented changes and urgency reported by climate scientists, and the unrivaled impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy. Combined, they have given the world a glimpse into the catastrophic implications of ecological collapse.
On 31 October 2021, heads of state will gather for the twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also known as COP26. In Glasgow, they will continue discussing ways to implement the Paris Agreement.
While the tone of scientists and the media going into the UNFCCC COP 26 in Glasgow is dire, there is still insistence on workable, though rapidly diminishing, ways forward. One of these is through the grand umbrella concept of nature-based solutions. Championed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Union defines nature-based solutions 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”.
Nature-based solutions evolved from previous concepts such as urban forestry, green infrastructure and delivery of ecosystem services. The current umbrella of nature-based solutions encompasses ecosystem-based adaptation, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and ecological engineering and other approaches.
The UNFCCC COP 26 has prioritized nature-based solutions as a cost effective, ecologically rooted approach to addressing the growing array of societal challenges. Despite not appearing in formal negotiation language to date, there is a growing interest in solutions such as restoration, agroforestry and green infrastructure as ways to mitigate, adapt and lead to greater equity. The logic is that interventions to the raft of challenges facing society are multiple and diverse, and many of the solutions can incorporate natural components that reduce ecological and climatic threats to the planet.
"Rather than creating elaborate and costly standalone structures, nature-based solutions allow a flexible piggybacking and retrofitting approach that reassures cautious COVID-era decision makers."
Decision makers may express conceptual fatigue with a new term that subsumes much of traditional sustainable natural resource management, climate or disaster reduction measures. But there is an elegant logic in the broad charter of nature-based solutions.
Global funding is currently insufficient. A recent State of Finance for Nature report argues that triple the current funding for nature and climate is required, up to US$350 billion by 2030. In this context, it is cost-effective and prudent to deliberately seek infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, watershed management, sustainable agriculture, and other solutions that are founded on ecological principles or to build them on top of existing engineering or land management plans.
Rather than creating elaborate and costly standalone structures, such as REDD+, for example, to meet pressing, sector-specific land management needs, nature-based solutions allow a flexible piggybacking and retrofitting approach that reassures cautious COVID-era decision makers.
Asia delivers ready-made solutions
In Asia, structures are in place that are ready-made to deliver on global aspirations for nature-based solutions, namely the region’s well established and extensive network of community forests. In the ASEAN region alone, 13.8 million hectares of forest land are legally managed by communities and smallholders.
Community forestry is a broad term for approaches that empower local people to manage, protect and benefit from forests, which they may have relied upon for generations. Community forestry has demonstrated its worth in carbon sequestration, in supporting community and ecosystem adaptation to climate impacts, in offering opportunities for enhanced income and perhaps most importantly, in providing a mechanism for participatory processes, equity and locally accountable governance.
From agroforestry, bioremediation, watershed management, biodiversity conservation, forest restoration to bioengineering, community forests can provide a much needed structure and platform for scaling out and up micro levels of nature-based interventions. However, community forestry requires a bridging mechanism to realize its full potential as a vehicle for nature-based solutions. The unit of community forestry will not be sufficient in terms of area and sectoral reach to realize the environmental renaissance the world urgently needs.
Read Special Report: "How community forestry boosted pandemic resilience across Asia-Pacific"
The landscape approach RECOFTC practices allows the nesting of one or more community forests within a broader, multi-sectoral mosaic of landuse and webs of diverse stakeholders. Community forests provide the institutional structure to mobilize and engage local communities, to channel funds and the mandate to invest and improve the land. However, the more amorphous unit of landscape is the only way that watersheds, biodiversity, sustainable supply chains, production, conservation and community forests can all be brought together to generate more environmental impact than the sum of their parts.
The UNFCCC COP26 and other multilateral processes are putting considerable weight on the ambitious, and yet somewhat generic, concept of nature-based solutions. The devil will be in the accompanying financing, indicators and standards. Nevertheless, nature-based solutions may just be encompassing enough to generate the momentum and cumulative actions required to stave off the worst of climate impacts.
Many of the tools are already available. It is in funneling the lofty concepts and funds to the people, trees, soil and biodiversity, on the ground, in actual places, that the battle will be lost or won.
Regan Pairojmahakij is a senior program officer on landscapes in a changing climate at RECOFTC.
RECOFTC's work is made possible with the continuous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).