Nature-based solutions to climate change

By Ion Ilasco

Nature-based solutions to climate change

Our planet’s climate is changing. Extreme heatwaves, heavy storms, and severe droughts are just a few of the consequences While our planet’s climate has alternated throughout history, marking seven major cycles of warming and cooling, current trends show different dynamics that are of much more concern.

Humanity is under great pressure to find sustainable solutions to at least stop if not reverse climate change. Nature-based solutions have emerged as a viable option but does this mean we simply stand aside and let nature do the work? Find out now.

Defining nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions (NbS) refer to actions that are inspired by nature used to address ongoing societal challenges, specifically climate change, but in sustainable ways. NbS have the potential to effectively contribute to the protection, restoration, and management of natural ecosystems in various settings (e.g., rural, urban, marine) and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Various actors across the globe have voiced their support for NbS referring to the multiple co-benefits for socio-economic wellbeing, health, and the environment.

Fig.1. Nature-based solutions chart

Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature

As NbS are a relatively new concept with an as yet limited application, their potential to provide the envisioned benefits has not so far been rigorously assessed. The concept was introduced in the late 2000s by practitioners and international organizations to prompt a shift in the perspective of identifying novel solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change effects.

Recent research undertaken by the University of Oxford via the Nature-based Solutions Initiative found that nature-based solutions provide a superior cost benefit compared to other interventions. For example, engineered approaches deliver immediate measurable impacts over the short-term but often lack adaptability and thus prove to be more expensive in the long run. NbS, on the other hand, provide a wider range of ecosystem co-benefits that offer protection from multiple hazards and are more likely to create a wealth increase effect over time. As an example, every £1 invested in the restoration of peatlands in the UK could generate £4.62 in economic and social benefits for the local economy.

Based on current trends, Europe is the leader in developing and implementing NbS with 1,004 active projects surpassing Asia and Africa which have 50 and 36 projects respectively. Australia & Oceania as well as North America have the least active nature-based projects with 6 and 2 NbS respectively.

Fig.2. Nature-based projects by region

Source: Urban Nature Atlas – number of nature-based projects by region

Examples and application areas

🔹 Urban areas

  • Urban parks have the ability to significantly reduce air and surface temperatures in cities. Moreover, parks can also regulate stormwater flows thus diminishing flood hazards. To increase effectiveness, it is essential to select the correct tree/plant species, location, and size of the proposed parks. A good example is the Nature Island Pennenfeld project in the city of Bonn in Germany which aims to undertake the transformation of a 1,800 sqm large tree-lined lawn area.
  • Urban trees planted across cities contribute to reducing stormwater run-off during heavy rainfalls and decreasing the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated. Furthermore, trees improve the microclimate by providing shade, reducing air temperature and pollution. The Planting a tree for the climate project in Fez (Morocco) is a good example of NbS which involves planting trees in urban areas.
  • Green rooftops/buildings provide considerable benefits in terms of water and heat management without requiring extra urban space. Take for example the fact that a green roof can completely retain the water that falls during a 30 minutes rain shower. Vancouver Convention Centre, for example, has a six-acre living roof that features more than 400,000 indigenous plant and grasses.
  • Permeable pavements are becoming integral parts of urban green infrastructure planning. Those absorb stormwater and facilitate the hydrological and ecological functions of urban aquatic ecosystems. The Netherlands is the leader featuring 118 locations where permeable pavement has been installed.

“Urban parks are on average 0.94 °C cooler during the day than built-up areas,”  (European Environment Agency, 2021)

Vancouver Convention Centre green rooftop/Photo Credit: PWL Partnership

🔹 Forests and forestry areas

  • Urban forests are extended areas with green infrastructure within city boundaries. Parks, street trees, and open green spaces are usually included in this category.
  • Nearby forests are green spaces located adjacent to cities that maintain biodiversity, reduce flooding and prevent soil erosion. The Beijing Plain Area Afforestation Programme is a good example of Nbs that aim to improve urban resilience through afforestation.
  • Faraway forests are remote, vast green spaces that host various ecosystems. Such green areas play an important role in carbon segregation and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Fig.3. Forests

Source: Revolve Media – Forests: A nature-based solution for sustainable and resilient cities

🔹 Marine environments

  • Nature-based solutions for advancing climate adaptation in marine areas aim to minimize losses from natural hazards. Restoration of wetlands to protect against storms, coastal zone management of protected areas and the development of sustainable fisheries are just some examples. There is, for instance, a project in Seychelles that seeks to reduce the vulnerabilities caused by climate change by spearheading ecosystem-based adaptation.
  • Nature-based solutions for the protection and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems are designed to maintain healthy biodiversity levels and build effective area-based conservation measures. The Alicante coastal corridor is a good example of Nbs for marine environments that aims to create coastal passages and new multi-purpose public spaces that promote biodiversity and accessibility.

Nature-based solutions could form part of our response to climate change but before implementing these, we should take into consideration their limitations and develop technical standards that could lower the costs and improve efficiency. The importance of combining NbS with other interventions for should be considered.

However, several concerns have been raised with regard to the resilience and reliability of NbS. As yet, its cost-effectiveness compared to other alternatives and the possibility of scaling up NbS across multiple spheres are not fully understood. The United Nations Environment Programme highlights the importance of a dual approach towards the mitigation of climate change effects by complimenting NbS with active decarbonization efforts (reducing emissions from energy, industry, and transport).

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