Nature-based Solutions: complex fixes for complex problems

by Peter Beare

[TL;DR] Nature offers a “forgotten solution” to many of the crises that we face today, from the climate emergency to plummeting biodiversity levels to wavering food security… And yet moving from an extractive mindset to a restorative one is far from easy. So – how is it getting done?

We’ve been hearing for years now about the power of changing our relationship with the natural environment. That conversation is about more than just recognising the value of ecosystem services. It actually extends all the way to the very practical level – the way we interact physically with natural resources. Organic farming presents a good example; sustainable logging provides another.

An all-too-familiar thread runs through many of these approaches – the idea of returning to pre-industrial practices, in many cases all the way back to traditional methods from generations upon generations ago. This call, to return to “forgotten solutions” from yesteryear, is bringing new attention to the idea of “Nature-based Solutions” (NBS) – using naturally-developed approaches to tackle the crises of our modern world, complete with its changing climate.

In fact, “NBS” is a very broad umbrella term indeed. It includes everything from climate-smart agriculture to flood management with coastal wetlands, while also encompassing the fact that both of these can reduce carbon emissions. It contains conservation and restoration practices on land and at sea. At the heart of it, NBS is all about sustainable management of natural resources – and recognising just how beneficial doing this can be.

And it absolutely can be. For example, a recent study (Griscom et al., 2017) suggests that these approaches could provide over one-third of all the emissions reductions we need by 2030 to get back in line with Paris Agreement targets. Better yet, those reductions come along with a whole range of co-benefits: cleaner air, improved biodiversity, increased agricultural production, targeted rural economic development… the list goes on. The research in this field continues to develop – a good overview of the topics is provided by The Nature Conservancy (an NGO active in this field).

So, with all of these positive outcomes, what “new attention” are we seeing on this front? Well, in some places there’s more of the usual – several major NGOs are active on the topic (think WWF, Conservation International, IUCN…), while the private sector is backing this in a big way – which is positive, so long as they’re doing the hard yards of decarbonisation first. There’s also increasing movement on the policy side; carbon pricing structures the world over are starting to include NBS as a source of carbon credits, seeking some way to incentivise financial support for practices like reforestation, intensified farming, and sustainable timber production.

There are also a couple of unexpected new developments. Perhaps the most important is the 2019 Climate Action Summit at the UN, where the Secretary-General has designated Nature-based Solutions as a key theme. As a result, countries (led by China and New Zealand), companies, and NGOs are joining forces to push this solution set to centre stage.

This movement is exciting, make no mistake. The research work from Griscom et al. (2017) finds that, between now and 2030, 37% of all the emissions reductions we need to keep global warming to 2°C could come from NBS. But we’re only just at the beginning of the story…

The biggest challenge at the moment is a straightforward lack of financing; The Nature Conservancy estimates that this solution set receives only 3% of climate finance, despite its huge potential. What NBS needs is (far) more support – with that, it could be one of the most powerful levers we have to achieve radical impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, faltering food security, and more. Fortunately, it’s not just individual international voices that are recognising this – the mobilisation extends all the way down to the individual level.

For example, environmental journalist George Monbiot recently launched a campaign to support Nature-based Solutions in a letter to the Guardian (you can see it here: A natural solution to the climate disaster). This has since been backed by activists, academics, politicians, and an ever-growing number of citizens as well. This group does not support the idea of paying for ecosystem services, raising the valid concern that previous efforts to do this have not been handled well. They do, however, see NBS as a way to address multiple crises at once, all while we pursue the decarbonisation of our economies.

This raises a valid practical question – beyond signing on to campaigns and so on, what’s the contribution that we can make as individuals?

For some parts of the NBS “set”, there’s not much for an individual to do. Unfortunately, NBS like reforestation of the Amazon are not really an option at the personal level. With that said, there is a range of other ways to engage… for example:

1. Take action in your area:

‒ Urban green spaces are a critical part of NBS, especially for their direct impact on local air and water quality. Grow your own, or support the association/department that does this in your district.

‒ Buy local agricultural produce – not only does it reduce transportation emissions, it also keeps a nature-based solution close to your home, especially if the farmer uses climate-smart agriculture to grow their goods. (An example from home? Abalimi bezeKhaya is an urban agriculture organisation based in Cape Town, which basically ticks both boxes…)

2. Vote with your feet! Your vote – political or financial – changes incentives for governments and the private sector; and, arguably most of all:

3. Incorporate NBS into your sustainability toolkit.

This last point is the most important. Whether you’re someone who recycles from time to time, an energy-saver who religiously turns out the lights when you leave the room, or a full-blown sustainable development engineer, NBS offers you complex solutions that have, over millions of years, evolved to address some of the complex problems that we face today. So, next time you’ve got a sustainability problem to solve… take a moment to see if Nature’s got a solution already.