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Nature-based solutions

Expose ‘greenwashing’ but do not ignore nature-based solutions to climate change, insists Oxford biodiversity expert
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Young mangrove trees planted on the sand beach to restore mangrove forest in Thailand

Nature-based solutions must not be forgotten in the drive to stabilise the climate. But care must be taken to ensure they are not hijacked or misused to ‘greenwash’ emissions.

The is the argument put forward by Oxford biodiversity expert Professor Nathalie Seddon in a landmark article for the journal Science.

What are nature-based solutions?

Professor Seddon’s intervention comes after the words ‘nature-based solutions’ were left out of the COP26 commitment last November.

Nature-based solutions are actions that involve people working with nature, as part of nature, to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human wellbeing and biodiversity.

The last-minute removal of the phrase followed concerns among some groups in Glasgow that nothing must distract from action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and reduce emissions – and that nature-based solutions risked this.

‘There is robust evidence to show the carefully designed and implemented, nature-based solutions really can help us address both the drivers and impacts of climate change, whilst protecting biodiversity and supporting the economy.

‘For example, protecting and restoring native ecosystems along coasts or in river catchments can promote healthy soil and vegetation that reduce the risks of floods, droughts, and landslides, while increasing CO2 storage and generating jobs.’

Oxford biodiversity expert

Are nature-based solutions a distraction?

Professor Seddon writes that concerns have grown over nature-based solutions, despite evidence for the multiple benefits they bring when well designed. She says there are three main reasons for this.

First, nature-based solutions are being used in ‘greenwashing’. In particular, companies responsible for much of the ongoing damage to climate and nature organisations are claiming to support environmental action, because they invest in a so-called nature-based solutions scheme while at the same time continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

Second, actions labelled as nature-based solutions are sometimes implemented through top-down actions that do not respect local rights, fail to account for local voices, values and knowledge in decision-making and perpetuate power asymmetries.

Finally, there is evidence that misuse of nature-based solutions can harm biodiversity. A key concern is that current policy and funding emphasise tree planting, including on areas not previously forested, rather than ecosystem protection and restoration.

This is despite the fact that protecting existing ecosystems is critical if we are to meet the Paris Agreement goal to keep warming within 1.5 degrees.

‘COP26 revealed that, whereas many organisations and governments are embracing the approach as an essential tool for tackling climate change, others… have dismissed it [nature-based solutions] as a dangerous distraction from systemic change.’

Oxford biodiversity expert

Combining climate solutions

Professor Seddon recognises ‘drastic cuts in the use of fossil fuels’ are needed to prevent dangerous warming. She writes: ‘Nature-based solutions can make an important contribution to reaching net-zero carbon emissions this century, but only if combined with other climate solutions, including dramatic cuts in GHG emissions across all sectors of the economy.’

But she insists, ‘This is not an argument against scaling up nature-based solutions. Instead, it underscores the need to consider the many other well-evidenced benefits of nature-based solutions, especially their critical roles supporting human adaptation to climate change and protecting biodiversity.’
Professor Seddon maintains nature-based solutions have a significant role to play in climate action and sets out the evidence for their efficacy and potential contribution as part of the overall climate action strategy – alongside fossil fuel phase out.

The nature-based solutions guidelines address these concerns and are being supported by multiple charities, environmental groups and research institutions. 

The article also stresses they have the advantage of being effective, ready, scalable and affordable – relative to technological solutions – especially over the long term.

‘Achieving net zero carbon emissions and transitioning to a nature-positive economy will also require systemic change in the way we behave as societies and run our economies, shifting to a dominant worldview that is based on valuing quality of life and human wellbeing rather than material wealth, and connection with nature rather than its conquest.

‘Signals, such as the rise of climate and nature grassroots activism, indicate that this shift is taking place. If carefully implemented to ensure that multiple values of the natural world are respected, nature-based solutions offer an opportunity to accelerate this transition while also slowing warming, building resilience, and protecting biodiversity.’

Oxford biodiversity expert

Professor Seddon wants to see nature-based solutions included in the decision text of COP27 taking place in Egypt later this year – ‘not only to give the parties oversight of implementation but, critically, to ensure pitfalls are avoided and the broad benefits harnessed.’

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