Bluebells in a forest in Belgium

Seeking Common Ground for Climate, Biodiversity, and People: How to get the debate on nature-based solutions right

To protect ecosystems and people, we must learn from past mistakes and work together on inclusive and robust nature-based solutions.

By Jeffrey Qi, Anika Terton, Scott Vaughan on December 2, 2021

Nature-Based Solutions at COP 26 

At the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in November, the UK Presidency highlighted the role that nature could play in helping solve the climate crisis by making it one of the conference’s key action items and themes. A myriad of side events and announcements held on the first-ever “Nature Day” elevated the prominence of nature-based solutions, also known as NbS, within the UN Climate Change venue. Supporters see this new wave of recognition as a promising step toward bridging the climate and biodiversity agendas while also setting the scene for the second part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD’s) Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in 2022.

But against this backdrop of growing popularity was criticism that NbS could provide a “false solution” that is susceptible to green-washing and may undermine local communities' rights. By the end of the Glasgow talks, all references to NbS were scrubbed from the final Glasgow Climate Pact due to the strong objection of some of the parties and observer constituencies. The same objections were raised during the preparation of the Kunming Declaration, released in October 2021 during the first part of the CBD’s COP 15: NbS was opposed as a “contentious concept.”  It remains to be seen if NbS will be included in the final text of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, expected in May 2022. 

What Are the Concerns? 

COP 26 has proven that NbS remains a polarizing concept. The perceived risks can be summarized in three main points:

NbS is perceived as a human-centric ideal that ignores the fundamental value of nature. 

Due to the relative newness of the concept and its scope, many have argued that the underlying logic of NbS to protect, conserve, and restore nature as a means to protect human interests ignores that nature has value in its own right, independent of human uses. For example, Bolivia argued during the recent COP 26 negotiations that the proposed language on NbS for the final Glasgow Climate Pact “assumes that nature is only in service of people’s needs, but nature has an intrinsic value. It is sacred. That must be reflected.”

Insufficient involvement of all relevant stakeholders could contribute to continued exploitation in developing countries. 

Indigenous Peoples and civil society argue that NbS may be used as a promotional tool, enabling the privatization of nature and its commodification through market-based mechanisms. This has led to concerns that the possible negative effects that NbS may cause effects for one group might be ignored, given its benefits for other stakeholders. Similarly, some are wary that key societal protection standards like proper consultation and engagement; free, prior informed consent; and the involvement of local communities in decision making will be reduced to formalities and box-ticking, rather than being implemented in a meaningful way. 

There is the potential for NbS to be misused as offsetting. 

NbS projects have been used to help achieve a wide range of policy objectives, such as flood control and freshwater management or the restoration and sustainable use of farmlands. However, recent attention to NbS (predominantly tree planting) within the climate community as a climate-mitigation solution, supported by optimistic studies on estimates around carbon sequestration, has led to widespread criticism that the benefits of NbS are being oversold.

More specifically, critics warn that NbS could be treated as a carbon-offsetting option that would enable the private sector to claim net-zero or carbon neutrality, while letting these companies avoid much-needed emissions cuts. It could also cause companies to neglect efforts to invest in developing better, more climate-friendly technologies. 

Working Together for Climate, Biodiversity, and People 

These concerns are well-justified. However, we must acknowledge that when implemented correctly, NbS can be highly effective in building long-term resilience for nature and people. It is a valuable asset in our toolbox for linking biodiversity and climate and addressing these twin crises. But how do we get it right? 

We reviewed several principles, guidelines, and standards developed by research institutions and organizations. Among these were the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Standard on NbS, the World Bank’s NbS guidance, the Oxford Nature-Based Solutions Initiative’s Four Guidelines for NbS, World Wide Fund for Nature’s enabling conditions for NbS, and the recently published NbS Youth Position

Based on this review, we summarize three key principles below that are crucial for guiding NbS implementation.

Principle 1 – Nature for nature’s sake 

The commodification of nature (and the human-centred view of our relationship with it) has led to our current state of environmental degradation. Policy-makers and practitioners of NbS must recognize the intrinsic value of healthy ecosystems and vibrant biodiversity—not merely their contributions to human and societal goals. 

While this might sound abstract for practitioners, the bottom line for good NbS design hinges upon an understanding of why we are doing it in the first place: the multiple benefits, not just for protecting human lives and livelihoods, but also for preserving healthy ecosystems for all species. The emphasis of the 2021 Dasgupta Review on valuing nature capital in its own right should guide all NbS practices, thereby avoiding the narrow monetization of ecosystems, and prohibiting NbS projects that undermine ecological capital (such as planting a single species of trees in a forest restoration project). 

Principle 2 – Rights-based, inclusive, and participatory implementation 

Stringent and robust social safeguards are essential for delivering NbS projects that are just, equitable, and inclusive. This entails respecting human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as local communities, at the earliest stages of NbS. It also means creating partnerships and ownership among diverse actors to design NbS that reflect the needs, priorities, values, and knowledge of the local beneficiaries. Decision-makers and practitioners must adhere to free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and vulnerable groups when designing NbS, which would, in turn, create an enabling environment for working together and generating local benefits. 

Principle 3 – NbS are only a part of the answer 

Relying solely on NbS will not help us solve the climate and biodiversity crises altogether. For NbS to be effective and sustainable, they must be accompanied by rapid emission reductions from sectors like energy, industry, transport, and land use. These emissions cuts must also be implemented alongside other policies to protect our ecosystems. Sustainable consumption and production of natural resources, a rapid and just transition to renewable and clean energies, and proactive adaptation measures are key for a global transformation in which NbS are one building block to build resilience of local communities and protect lives and livelihoods. Recognizing the limitations of NbS and the need for rapid decarbonization also prevents its “misuse” and ensures accountability.

Getting the Debate Right

It is vital to understand that the concept of NbS goes far beyond a single focus (e.g., mitigation or a single ecosystem). Rather, it draws attention to established and new approaches (ecosystem-based adaptation, water resource management, green and blue infrastructure) and puts them under one umbrella. Ideally, this will generate new momentum and increased visibility among a wide range of policy actors of nature’s potential contributions to adaptation, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity conservation, and much more.

At the same time, NbS is not a perfect concept. Fundamentally, criticisms of the NbS concept stem from a lack of globally recognized standards and principles guiding its implementation. This vacuum opens NbS up for harmful interpretations and misguided applications. 

This means credibility is key. A crucial aspect of our work on NbS is to acknowledge these criticisms and jointly advocate with the above organizations for clear and coherent principles, safeguards, and ecological integrity and social standards for implementation. By doing so, we hope to help make it possible to deliver effective and sustainable NbS that produce equitable benefits for people and nature.