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Are nature-based solutions the silver bullet for social & environmental crises?

A member of the Indigenous Tikuna nation paddling a dugout canoe on a tributary of the Amazon in Colombia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • In the months leading up to the global climate conference in Glasgow this November, the term “nature-based solutions” has gained global prominence in the climate change mitigation discourse.
  • Praise for NBS has mainly come from the U.N., policymakers, international conservation organizations and corporations, while grassroots movements and civil society groups have voiced concerns over the concept.
  • Critics warn that NBS can be used as a tool to finance destructive activities by corporations and greenwash ongoing carbon emissions and destruction of nature.

In the ongoing debate about how to tackle the interconnected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality, one term has recently been getting particular attention among policymakers, corporations and international conservation organizations: nature-based solutions, or NBS.

First mentioned by the U.N. in 2009, NBS were broadly defined by the ​IUCN, the global conservation authority, in 2016 as activities that work with nature to address societal challenges, the impacts of climate change, and biodiversity loss simultaneously. Examples range from tree planting to restoration of degraded lands, or improved soil or coast management.

For many, they are the new way forward. In a compendium prepared for the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit they were called “an essential component” of the global effort to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep global temperature rise below 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

In the run-up to the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this November, NBS have gotten another boost. They are one of five major action tracks at the conference, during which governments are expected to present their updated emissions reduction goals, or nationally determined contributions (NDS).

“No country can achieve net zero [carbon emissions] and address poverty and biodiversity loss without NBS,” said Xiaoting Hou-Jones, a U.K.-based senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Hou-Jones compiled a report on NBS that was released under the umbrella of Bond, the U.K. membership body for development NGOs and features successful case studies of NBS implemented by members. Projects include a natural flood prevention measure in the U.K., a farmer-led seed bank project in China, and a community-based land and water management scheme in Sudan.

The hamlet Timbulsloko in Indonesia has been flooded as a result of climate change and the destruction of mangrove forests.  Image by Nuswantoro/Mongabay Indonesia.

“The success ingredients of all case studies are similar: They all are a combination of how they work with nature,” Hou-Jones told Mongabay about the findings, adding that NBS, “if done right, address all three emergencies simultaneously.”

However, there is much debate around the concept, and while its popularity has grown, critical voices have become louder.

Vague definition

“NBS are so all-embracing and nebulous,” Simon Counsell, former executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK who now works as an independent consultant, told Mongabay. “They can be anything with societal benefits that includes nature,” he added, which describes most development projects.

Particularly problematic for Counsell is the framing of the term and that NBS are “being presented as a third or more of the solution to climate change, while they are actually very insignificant on an international scale.” He was referring to a widely quoted 2017 study by the U.S.-based conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, which concluded that NBS can contribute 37% to the global effort of meeting the Paris Agreement goals by 2030.

Documents like the Bond report are “basically a funding pitch,” Counsell said, but also part of a strategic effort by the U.K. to position itself as a successful host of this year’s climate conference. In recent years, initiatives and working groups dealing with NBS have emerged, and multiple reports have been compiled on the subject. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared at the U.N. and World Bank-initiated One Planet Summit for Biodiversity this year that 3 billion pounds ($4 billion) of the U.K.’s 11.6 billion pound ($15.8 billion) international climate finance commitment from now until 2025 will be spent on supporting nature and biodiversity.

Researchers conducting saltmarsh vegetation surveys and recording water levels on the Taf estuary, South Wales. Flood protection measures using carbon sequestering saltmarsh are among the UK’s flagship NbS. Image courtesy of Swansea University.

The role of IPLCs

But skepticism remains. NBS allow corporations and “international organizations who are driven by the wrong self-interest to greenwash their destruction,” Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher for GRAIN, said in an interview with Mongabay. The NGO advocates for small farmers in the Global South and released a statement last week rejecting the term NBS, which was also signed by other grassroots organizations and international NGOs.

The statement underlines the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), even though they have been officially recognized as a key component by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Indigenous groups have raised growing concern about land rights and the threat of displacement in connection with NBS.

Kuyek said Indigenous peoples around the world have already been working with nature without labeling their activities “nature-based solutions,” and thus not getting global attention or funding. He said NBS have become “a huge money maker” not only for corporations, but also for large conservation NGOs such as WWF, whose NBS project in Pakistan is also featured in the Bond report.

“They can get hold of community lands to create the parks, manage them and claim that there won’t be any deforestation — and they get paid for that,” said Kuyek, who accuses WWF of having a “colonial approach to conservation.”

Papua Newguinean children hold signs supporting the traditional Angore landowners’ group, Angore Tiddl Appa Landowners Association Inc. (ATALA). The group has been protesting against the plan to develop a PNG LNG project on customary land. Image courtesy of ATALA.

A challenge: Funding for NBS

Funding is one of the most important issues in the NBS discourse and mentioned in all reports on the topic. The Bond report, for instance, suggests that an extra $589 billion to $824 billion will need to be invested annually to “reverse climate change” by 2030. The figures are based on calculations by the Paulson Institute, a self-described “non-partisan, independent ‘think and do tank’ dedicated to fostering a US-China relationship.”

A U.N. Environment Programme report on financing nature and NBS, released earlier this year, suggested that the $133 billion currently being spent on NBS annually “ought to at least triple” in the coming nine years. Where this funding will come from, however, is unclear, but appeals are directed both at the public as well as, increasingly, the private sector.

Critics warn that NBS could become an offsetting scheme like REDD+, which, introduced by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005, has provoked controversy over just how effective it is. “NBS are basically REDD+ rebranded,” Counsell said. “The attraction for governmental and corporate players is that they can be done at scale and are a cheap alternative to cutting fossil fuel emissions or using machinery.”

Jutta Kill from the World Rainforest Movement, which is among the signatories of the GRAIN statement, calls the NBS concept “misleading” and a ticket for corporations to carry on as usual. “They are talking about restoring the carbon storage above ground while the destruction of the underground sinks continues,” she said.

Kill especially questions the word “solutions,” as without continuously high emissions from burning fossil fuels there wouldn’t be a problem that needs solving in the first place. “NBS are not the right approach,” she said.

Demand for fossil fuels is still increasing. The P-51 oil platform in Brazil. Image by Divulgação Petrobras / ABr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 BR).

A distraction from continuing emissions?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has projected carbon emissions from the energy sector to increase by 5% this year, the highest annual rise in more than a decade, with the burning of coal and the use of natural gas being the two major drivers.

Even proponents of NBS recognize that it needs more than nature-based solutions to bring change. “NBS cannot replace any of the deep commitments to decarbonize the economy,” said Bond report author Hou-Jones, suggesting stricter regulations by governments for “those who have money and power” to use them wisely and restrict emissions.

In its policy recommendations, the Bond report mentions growing concerns over the efficient implementation of NBS and provides ideas of how to address them. The importance of supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities is cited as one of the most pressing issues.

Bond co-author Hou-Jones said that among the findings of the report were growing concerns of NBS, especially with regards to the role of local communities. “A lot of people who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of the triple emergency are the ones finding the solutions, and strong local community leadership is key for NbS to work,” she said, adding that the inclusion of local stakeholders needs to be strengthened.

Groups working on NBS have also recognized greenwashing as a risk. The Oxford University NbS Initiative (NbSI), for instance, published a report about this issue, proposing four guiding principles to ensure the successful implementation of NBS, including the provision of “measurable benefits for biodiversity” and the “full engagement and consent of IPLCs.”

“We are aware that there is a lot of low-quality stuff happening, which is undermining all the good projects,” said Melanie Coath, a senior policy officer at the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is a member of Bond. She also coaches international organizations within the UNFCCC.

While NBS are expected to play a prominent role during COP26 next month, it is unclear whether and how they end up in the final decision texts.

For those promoting NBS, hopes are high that nature will make it into the formal negotiations with actions as a result. “Our best outcome would be to have some kind of work program that recognizes nature,” Coath told Mongabay. She a​​lso said nature should play a more substantial role in governments’ NDCs, but acknowledged there will be resistance from countries like Brazil who “want to be able to chop down the rainforest.”

Skeptics don’t anticipate significant changes in global climate action in Glasgow. For GRAIN’s Kuyek, the current approach to working with nature is flawed. “It should not be a top-down project that is implemented by a northern NGO,” he said. Only when governments listen and support what the people are pushing for, he added, can change be made.

Indigenous settlement in the rainforest of Suriname. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Banner image: Indigenous Tikuna paddling a dugout canoe on a tributary of the Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Editor’s note: Two paragraphs were added to the original version of this story under the section titled “A distraction from continuing emissions?” in order to give a broader perspective of the concerns arising around NBS.

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