What are – and aren’t – nature-based solutions?

Multinationals are increasingly harnessing nature to reach green goals, but it can be a tricky business

Small acacia trees being readied for planting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
4 November 2020
4 November 2020

Every now and again, a sector-specific term will make the crossover from the vocabulary of its native circles to that of the broader public. From the climate change sphere, it was “ecosystem services” that began to cross the bridge a few years ago. Now, it’s “nature-based solutions.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has set the prevailing definition for the term 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.”

Max Scher, the head of clean energy and carbon programs for cloud-based tech behemoth Salesforce, puts it in more basic terms: “For us, I think it’s about using nature to improve the state of the world.”

The scope of nature-based solutions – which also go under the acronym of NBS – accordingly run the gamut of the innumerable combinations of ecosystems and landscapes paired with any of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “An NBS can be anything from restoring a wetland to bring down drinking water purification costs for a city to planting mangroves to protect against storm surge,” says Tim Christophersen, head of the nature for climate branch of UN Environment (UNEP). “It can be a solution for a climate challenge or a solution for another societal challenge.”

According to the UN, nature-based solutions can provide more than a third of the climate change mitigation needed to reach goals to curb global warming by 2030. Restoring 350 million hectares of land by the same time could generate up to USD 9 trillion in net benefits.

However, they are not solitary heroes that can save the world alone. “If you warm the climate too much because of lack of mitigation, nature will offer no solution because nature will become part of the problem,” says Christophersen. “We’ll see more forest fires, more disastrous ocean heatwaves. In order to be effective, NBS must be employed alongside other mitigation actions, and scientific care must be taken to avoid NBS becoming means for greenwashing.”

No new tricks

Although they might be gaining attention, NBS are nothing new. Communities around the world have longstanding traditions of using nature to benefit their lives and lands, such as by planting trees to control water supply or to aid the growth of healthy crops with their shade. What is different about NBS now, however, is the way they’re framed: that they are one of the first-class tickets to achieving ambitious social and environmental goals on a mass scale.

NBS were first put forth on the global stage at the 2009 UN Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP 15), where an IUCN position paper advocated to “make full use of nature-based solutions in the post-2012 climate change regime. IUCN continued to lead on their development, putting together a formal report published in 2016 that has served as the North Star for NBS ever since, including the aforementioned definition, the scope of approaches that fall under their umbrella, a framework for implementation and a set of accompanying implementation principles.

The latter has since been extrapolated into a Global Standard for NBS, developed through two rounds of open consultations and inputs from more than 800 experts in 100 countries. “The Standard makes clear what is an NBS, as not everything that is nature qualifies,” says Christophersen. In essence, it gives anyone implementing an NBS – from an individual in her backyard up to a government coalition attempting continental change – a self-assessment for ensuring the integrity of an NBS through eight criteria weighing economic, environmental and societal benefits.

Amy Duchelle, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), addressed some of the potential risks in a panel discussion during the Global Landscapes Forum’s two-day digital conference on biodiversity. “There are climate risks when it comes to potentially using them to slow our transition away from fossil fuels, biodiversity risks if you’re planting trees over natural ecosystems, and risks for local people’s livelihoods and rights when working from a top-down approach,” she said.

“IUCN standards help think about not just about climate impacts, but also other societal linkages,” says Scher. “This helps make sure there are no underlying risks and that benefits are being maximized for everyone.”

A whole new world

The Salesforce headquarters in San Francisco. Thomas Hawk, Flickr

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which runs from 2021 until 2030, aims to employ NBS on the largest scale yet, restoring degraded landscapes back into health to help in the fight for food security, clean water, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

The Decade needs an estimated USD 1 trillion to be achieved. “We would like to see investments in conservation and restoration of nature go through a similar transformation as we’ve seen with renewable energy in the past 20 years, which came from a small investment area to a large mainstream focus,” says Christophersen, who coordinates the Decade.

Encouragingly, this could be possible if the private sector continues to climb aboard the NBS bandwagon at the rate at which it has been in recent years. Salesforce has been a leader in this regard, from its über-energy-efficient glistening headquarters to partnering on the latest, greatest poster-child tree-planting initiative 1t.org, committing to plant and protect 100 million trees over the next decade in contribution to the 1t.org’s end goal of 1 trillion.

Forest landscape restoration was indeed the “first purpose-built NBS,” as Christophersen puts it, and trees have thus far been the NBS celebrity influencers. (“People just don’t have love for individual solar panels the same as they have love for individual trees,” says Scher.) The Bonn Challenge tree-planting initiative has become a widely hailed initiative in helping achieve the Paris Agreement on climate change, having so far seen 1.379 billion tons of carbon dioxide sequestered and 354,000 jobs created.

In the private sector, Microsoft’s decade-long climate “moonshot” plan, which aims to see the company go carbon negative by 2030, is focusing on NBS for the first five years to reduce its carbon footprint through protecting forests and planting trees for carbon capture. The Walt Disney Company, in addition to reducing emissions and investing more than USD 100 million in wildlife and nature conservation, has planted more than 9 million trees to date.

“I think we’ll soon see more interest in oceans, mangroves, seagrass meadows,” says Christophersen. “Peatlands, especially, are not very well known to the broad general public. But a lot of the companies that commit [to reducing emissions] also want to send signals to customers that green climate action is something they’re taking seriously, and trees have universal appeal.”

Nature-based needs

Horst Freiberg, creator of the Bonn Challenge, plants trees in northern Brazil as part of the initiative. Raquel Maia Arvelos, CIFOR
Horst Freiberg, creator of the Bonn Challenge, plants trees in northern Brazil as part of the initiative. Raquel Maia Arvelos, CIFOR

The role of scientific expertise and traditional knowledge in helping properly implement NBS cannot be understated. “Experts of many kinds need to bring nuance to NBS so that they’re not simple,” says Duchelle. “We’re in the middle of a climate and a biodiversity crisis, but we can’t make solutions too simple. They’re not and they never have been. That’s our role – to provide the nuance to these solutions to ensure ecosystem integrity and rights and livelihoods for local people.”

But for investors and companies interested in using NBS to further their sustainability, the nuances and granulations of how NBS work on the ground might be best left in the hands of their scientific partners. “I think if we want to build this movement to the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of companies and actors that we need to take action, it’s still in general too confusing,” says Scher.

The definition, framework and self-assessment needs to be approachable enough that smaller investors and enterprises without the capacity to hire or team with experts can still feel confident that they understand how to implement NBS properly and without doing more harm than good, he says. And when partnerships with scientific organizations are formed, the two sides need to meet in the middle, with understanding of how NBS are formed on each side.

“I don’t know if it’s as much about the scientific community helping solve our problems,” says Scher. “It’s really about meeting in the middle, showing them what requests for proposals look like, the processes we go through. What we’re really looking for is translating the expert guidance that exists out there into the tactical execution that we need as a company. This whole space is a perpetual learning journey.”


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