The tidal swamps of Oregon — brackish, muddy pools of water ringed by lush green spruce trees — represent more than just a place to get back to nature; they quietly serve as a key ally in the fight against the climate crisis.
As extreme weather becomes more severe and more frequent, wetlands like the Oregon tidal swamps can provide a buffer to coastal communities from storms. And as the planet grapples with how to fight the climate crisis by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide we have pumped in the atmosphere, those same wetlands pull in the carbon and store it away in their plants, soils and sediments.
The US government sees the conservation and regeneration of the US coastal wetlands — from Oregon to the salt marshes of North Carolina — as crucial to the country’s role in fighting the climate crisis. Scientists studying these havens of biodiversity are trying to calculate the exact amount of carbon they’re able to store, and an area of salt marsh the size of the Grand Canyon National Park stretching from North Carolina to Florida has been earmarked for conservation by a group including government, conservation groups, local communities and the military.
The wetlands, and the recognition of their value to our environmental well-being, are part of an increasingly popular concept of relying on so-called nature-based solutions to aid in the fight against climate change. It marks a reversal of attitudes from big companies and governments, which haven’t always fully understood or appreciated fragile ecosystems like wetlands, which previously would’ve been reclaimed for other uses. But that is slowly changing — in some places at least.
While nature-based solutions aren’t a silver bullet to the climate crisis, they could help to mitigate their effects. The stakes are high, with human-induced climate change already devastating countries around the world by exacerbating floods, heat waves, wildfires, storms and unpredictable weather patterns and resulting in the death and displacement of millions.
Experts say that while nature-based solutions play a role in the fight against climate change, they will only work effectively in conjunction with phasing out our reliance on fossil fuels and reducing emissions. According to the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if the planet doesn’t act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, the world will fail to limit global warming to the critical temperature change of 1.5 degrees Celsius, a critical threshold for limiting the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.
Around the world, people are working on projects across different ecosystems — creating new habitats, protecting existing ones, restoring habitats that have been lost due or degraded due to human interference. These projects can have myriad benefits, including saving millions of species at risk of extinction and providing fresh drinking water for local communities, while also pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Nature-based solutions are absolutely critical,” UN Environment Programme Chief Inger Andersen said at COP26, the United Nations climate summit held in Glasgow last November. “When we protect nature, nature provides security for us. It gives us the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.”
Here and elsewhere, nature is hard at work trying to reverse the effects of generations of human civilization pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in a rapidly warming planet. In spite of its crucial role, nature can’t carry the burden of solving the climate crisis alone. But it can help.
“Nature-based solutions cannot replace or delay decarbonization efforts, but if deployed correctly at scale, they could save over 10 gigatonnes of CO2 per year,” James Lloyd, who leads the Nature4Climate Coalition, a group of conservation and business organizations, said over email. Additionally, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimates that nature-based solutions can provide 37% of the mitigation needed until 2030 to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement.
Now it’s up to governments, businesses, investors and society more widely to decide whether they’re going to prioritize it.
What are nature-based solutions?
There are many different ways that nature can lend a hand in fighting climate change: restoring wetlands, planting trees, implementing sustainable farming practices and protecting existing habitats such as mangroves or grasslands from further development are just a few examples. These different techniques are often grouped together by experts, scientists and politicians under the umbrella term “nature-based solutions.”
“You can think about nature-based solutions seeking to utilize nature to restore natural balance,” said Courtney Durham, international conservation officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s looking to nature to get back to what it does best — that exchange with the atmosphere that keeps everything in balance and keeps life habitable on the planet.”
Nature-based solutions have the potential to tackle two of the climate crisis’ biggest challenges: mitigating its effects and adapting to the new reality it’s creating. Reforestation of mangroves, for example, can result in the sequestering of carbon to mitigate global warming. At the same time, it can provide protection for coastal communities against the flooding it causes.
Not only is nature one of the most effective tools for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, but it has ancillary benefits. These include reducing the risk of disasters, improving food and water security, increasing biodiversity, and boosting the physical and mental health of humans.
Nature-based solutions have even been linked to improved economic outcomes. In the UK, a study performed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Cambridge Econometrics showed there were multiple cost benefits (including the creation of new jobs) to restoring and protecting peatlands, salt marshes and woodlands. These are all natural habitats known for their capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to embrace nature-based solutions, Durham said, is that unlike carbon-capture technologies, which are for the most part still being developed and not yet proven to be convincingly effective, nature is ready to go now. It can be deployed immediately, is scalable and relatively affordable.
The US government has jumped on this bandwagon, especially in the past year. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August included a $20 billion investment for agriculture, $5 billion for forests, and yet more for tree planting and wetlands.
“It is a full court press,” Durham said. “There are things in there that will help the climate, they will help nature, they will help people in a holistic way that we haven’t seen before.”
Pitfalls of nature-based solutions
By benefitting the climate, humankind and the economy, nature-based solutions look like a win-win-win all round. That’s why governments and industries from historically high-polluting countries have joined the scientific community in enthusiastically embracing them.
But critics from indigenous communities and some civil society groups are so wary of nature-based solutions and those who champion them that they have rejected the term entirely, according to Nathalie Seddon, an Oxford University professor and founder of the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative, an international group of natural and social scientists.
For some indigenous groups, the sudden championing of nature-based solutions are viewed as a rebranding of the stewardship and care for the environment they’ve been providing for centuries. The biggest new supporters of nature-based solutions are often the same groups that indigenous groups once had to defend their land against.
“The reactions from a number of the indigenous groups we work with was there’s nothing new about having a healthy relationship with the environment,” said Helen Tugendhat, an environmental governance coordinator at the Forest Peoples Programme, which represents a number of indigenous groups.
Another major point of contention is the idea that nature-based solutions don’t also include culture in their definitions, Tugendhat said. Many indigenous cultures see nature and humanity as deeply interconnected, whereas many nature-based solutions are treated by governments and industry as an engine for profit versus the benefit of people.
For nature-based solutions to work they must be “high integrity,” Lloyd said. By this, he means they must be inclusive of indigenous and local communities in both their design and implementation. Biodiversity and social safeguards need to be in place “to ensure they address social, economic and environmental challenges together,” he added.
When solutions become greenwashing
It doesn’t help that there’s no enforceable standard for what nature-based solutions should include, leaving room for the rights of indigenous people and other grassroots groups in society to be trampled over. Governments have, in the name of conservation, evicted people from their homes and committed other human rights violations all over the world.
“There’s no regulation, or there’s no sort of control of how the term is used,” Tugendhat said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has tried to create an official definition for nature-based solution, one that emphasizes the importance of ensuring it’s based on inclusive, transparent and empowering governance processes.
“If you want this to be durable and sustainable, you’re going to have to not only do the right thing by including those communities, but ensure that they’re involved because that is just better for the outcomes,” Durham said.
Likewise, the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative has issued guidelines for what the best practices should look like. It emphasizes the importance of avoiding misguided attempts to offset carbon, like inappropriately planting trees on grasslands, and to focus on measuring success by value to the community and biodiversity rather than counting the number of newly planted trees.
Planting trees as a standalone solution also “conveniently sidelines” the fact that it takes a long time for those trees to grow and start pulling in carbon, Alexandre Chausson, a researcher at Oxford University and project manager at the Initiative, said via email.
The guidelines re-emphasize the importance of governments and industry not trying to use nature-based solutions as a substitute for tackling their own emissions. In theory, it’s encouraging to see big companies, including fossil fuel giants, taking steps toward tackling the climate crisis. But digging into the motivations behind their embrace of nature-based solutions uncovers worrying trends.
There is a risk that big companies will use investing in nature-based solutions to offset their emissions as an excuse to continue with business as usual, according to the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative. Multiple fossil fuel companies have launched tree-building and forest restoration projects at the same time as announcing new fossil fuel extraction projects. This is just another form of greenwashing, Tugendhat said. And among civil society, scientists and grassroots communities, there’s a real fear of industry trying to use nature as a free pass that will allow them to continue polluting the planet.
Long term, investing in nature will pay off for our planet, but it’s not a quick fix that can be adopted as an alternative to decarbonization. “We know that carbon emissions have to be reduced 50% by 2030,” Chausson said. “The contribution of nature-based solutions really takes hold after that, and the most urgent action is to reduce carbon emissions.”
How nature-based solutions will play a role at COP27
While scientists and indigenous communities have long recognized that biodiversity and the climate are intrinsically interlinked, lawmakers are now starting to catch on. Over the past few years, there has been increased understanding that in order to tackle the climate crisis, we must protect our natural ecosystems and invest in restoring what has been damaged.
At last year’s United Nations climate conference, COP26, many celebrated the fact that nature-based solutions got more airtime than ever before.
“Nature was front and center of many of the announcements made at COP26, backed up by funding of $20 billion from public and private sources,” Lucy Almond, chair of Nature4Climate, which is hosting the Nature Pavilion at next month’s COP27, said in a press release. “This year, it is critical to keep that kind of momentum going.”
It’s likely that the US delegation, including President Joe Biden and John Kerry, his envoy for climate, will use the upcoming summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, as an opportunity to showcase the progress they’ve made this year on nature.
But with COP27 being the “African COP,” participants advocating on behalf of Indigenous and African groups say the central focus should be on how nature-based solutions can be used to help vulnerable communities already suffering the worst impacts of climate change.
There are some hints that this will happen. Africa’s Great Green Wall — a project to build an 8,000km green space across the width of the continent — is due to be showcased at the summit. With the Egyptian presidency’s determination that COP27 should be all about implementation rather than more pledges, there could also be a real emphasis on securing funding to get nature-based solutions in place.
COP27 will also play an important role in reasserting the importance of nature-based solutions ahead of a different summit — the confusingly named COP 15 UN Biodiversity conference, due to take place in Canada in December. There is widespread determination among participants that it will be the location of a crucial new international agreement — a so-called Paris Agreement for biodiversity.
With nature on the agenda via a day dedicated to biodiversity and through the Nature Pavilion at COP27, much of the groundwork for this new treaty is expected to be laid at Sharm el Sheikh.
The Egyptian presidency for the summit has also promised that it will center the voices and negotiating power of young and indigenous people, in theory providing space for their nature-centric leadership.
Nature for all
How best to form policy around nature-based solutions is something scientists, financial institutions and lawmakers will continue to work on at high-level summits such as COP27. But as something that is vital to our co-existence on Earth, nature is something that we can all choose to care for and prioritize in our communities and lives.
When it comes to rethinking our own relationship with nature, there is much to be learned from indigenous communities around the world who have generations of experience in land stewardship. To find out more about indigenous wisdom and nature with a focus on the US, a good place to start is the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Another thing is being aware of greenwashing, which isn’t always to spot. Be wary of governments and companies talking up their nature-based solutions without also talking about their efforts to decarbonize. Another telltale sign is nature-based solutions that don’t involve or benefit local communities.
This should be true of your own communities too. Wherever you live in the world, there will likely be opportunities to vote or use other advocacy techniques to ensure the decision makers in your immediate vicinity are prioritizing nature and biodiversity when designing local infrastructure and sustainability initiatives.
Nature-based solutions are not, as Durham pointed out, a “green bullet” for the climate crisis. But the benefits they can provide include improving our mental and physical health, greater biodiversity in our immediate environments, and protection against the changing weather patterns that are hitting us ever harder, means nature is something none of us can ignore.