A ‘super-year’ in store for nature-based solutions

UNEP’s Tim Christophersen on the imminence of using nature to save it

A farm in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is modeled in a way to make best use of its landscape footprint. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
9 December 2019

‘Nature-based solutions’ to climate change – the definition of which is quite self-evident – have long been lifted up in science and certain development circles as an overlooked solution which can help us to reverse planetary damage and limit global warming. Nature-based solutions could provide a full third of the mitigation needed to keep temperatures from rising above what scientists have set as the safe threshold.

Yet the term has nonetheless sat on the sidelines of many climate change discussions as many of its sub-categories – tree planting, seagrass growing, restoring peatlands – get the attention instead.

That changed in 2019, when nature-based solutions stepped into the spotlight more holistically with the inception of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration in March and the Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Manifesto launched in September. And according to Tim Christophersen, an senior official at UNEP who’s been driving forward the nature-based solutions agenda for years, the coming months will see these remedies continue to receive the political and financial support they need to blossom. Here, he shares.

Tim Christophersen of UNEP speaks at a Global Landscapes Forum symposium in Luxembourg. Pilar Valbuena, Flickr
Tim Christophersen of UNEP speaks at a Global Landscapes Forum symposium in Luxembourg. Pilar Valbuena, Flickr

How have you seen awareness build around nature-based solutions this year?

I think what is positive is that we have called senior decision-makers’ attention with a coherent narrative. That was probably the biggest value that came out of Climate Week in New York: that suddenly ministers of finance and heads of state were paying attention to this area that, for them, was always diffuse and fragmented. We’ve defragmented the nature space.

Going forward, what is really important is that we are clear on that narrative. Nature-based solutions are not a climate thing, also not a biodiversity thing. It’s about sustainable development and about how we must invest in nature so nature can bail us out of these multiple crises that we’re in.

We’re going now into a ‘super year’ for nature next year with the Convention on Biological Diversity COP (COP 15) and Biodiversity Summit in New York, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that there’s an overarching narrative. Nature-based solutions can help us with all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that’s what this is all about.

How can this narrative be best taken forward?

It needs to be packaged in a way that’s easily understood from the outside. If you have a clear goal, everybody gets that, and then they can leave the details to the experts. Prime ministers and heads of state, they get one-page briefings. That’s it. You have to be able to, in one page, distill: What is this about? Why is it important? What has to be done? We need to think in our nature and ecosystem space in those terms. It doesn’t mean that we lose complexity; it just means that we deal with that complexity somewhere else.

What policies are developing around nature-based solutions?

There are lots of people who are contacting us for ideas, ranging from multilateral development banks who want to invest more in restoration and nature, to private philanthropists and foundations, to governments who are taking this more seriously and asking us for guidance.

But I’m observing within the expert circles that there is a certain amount of reluctance to invite new actors into this space of nature-based solutions. There is a lot of interest now from investors and finance ministers, and we need to embrace that interest and invite those new players to collaborate with us. It’s easy to shake your head and say “planting a trillion trees is not going to work or is not helpful,” but if somebody who’s never invested in this wants to invest a lot of time and money into planting a trillion trees, let them have a go at it, and let us help those people understand what it’s about and how it can be done right.

We have to combine the old and the new in nature-based solutions – the old in terms of the experts and the established networks in the biodiversity and ecosystem circles, and the new in terms of the more powerful, private- and public-sector actors who now want to pay attention to this space.

Are there specific sectors in governments that are particularly interested in nature-based solutions?

In some countries, at least, it is the ministries of finance that now start to pay attention, which is exactly where we want to be. That’s the heart of the government machinery, and the lifeblood is fiscal incentives and policies. Once you arrive there, you can start looking at changing fossil fuel subsidies, changing agricultural subsidies, so that they have more benefits for more people and for biodiversity and the climate. Then we’re getting somewhere.

What else can development and research institutions do to support governments to keep this momentum going?

We need to communicate solutions that work, because right now, states are looking for new solutions. If somebody helps them with blueprints of how other countries have successfully made the transition, for example, to climate- and biodiversity-friendly subsidies for agriculture, they would be very happy to receive that information. So let’s pick out the positive case studies we have. There are a number of countries where fiscal policy reform, for instance, is working, and we need to share those examples widely. For example, the fiscal transfer for forest conservation in India, or the long-established levy on fossil fuels in Costa Rica that is invested into reforestation – those things need to be made widely known.

How does this all tie back to the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration?

So the overarching theme is nature-based solutions for sustainable development. Restoration is a big subset of nature-based solutions, and probably the most action-oriented one, where a lot of people can get involved. So we’re now drafting up the strategy for the Decade, we’re still inviting people to participate in the survey that’s on the Global Landscapes Forum website, and we want to design the Decade so that as many people as possible can get actively involved. That’s quite important to us. We will post a draft Strategy for the UN Decade at the end of January 2020, for a global consultation.

Could you briefly describe the history of the idea of nature-based solutions?

It started many years ago within the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), when they used that term to describe some of the work they do with mainstreaming biodiversity outside of biodiversity circles. After the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016, the term was picked up by the U.N. secretary-general as one of the action streams for nature, and I think that gave us a lot more prominence. A the World Conservation Congress in June 2020, IUCN will formalize the definition of nature-based solutions.

So things came together well under a term that is not a term just for climate change; it’s a term for describing nature’s essential role for sustainable development, and for supporting humanity.

Hopefully the sentiment that nature is fundamental to human life will continue to resonate.

But I think we’ve forgotten that, because we live in such a technological and secular world that we’ve forgotten that we’re dependent on nature. I think probably the most important thing we need going forward as humans is a new humility where we understand that we’re not really in charge of this Planet. “We must stop the war against nature,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. It is a war that has only losers and one we cannot win. Instead, we need a new harmony with nature. People all around the world are beginning to see that and will hopefully act.


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