Story | 12 Jul, 2023

Unleashing nature’s potential

Anna Turns investigates how to deliver Nature-based Solutions on the global scale needed to help fight climate change


Reforesting red mangrove saplings in the Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve, Nayarit, Mexico

Over the past two decades, researchers and volunteer snorkellers in Chesapeake Bay, USA, have spread more than 70 million tiny seagrass seeds over plots of sandy seabed. Now the world’s largest seagrass restoration project, the delicate work has led to more than 3,600 hectares of vibrant, biodiverse seagrass meadows being restored in the bay’s inshore lagoons. It’s also the first seagrass restoration project to put a figure on the amount of carbon being sequestered by the restored meadows: typically about 3,000 tonnes of carbon per year. It’s a great example of a Nature-based Solution (or NbS), a project that harnesses natural processes to deliver sustainable benefits on many fronts – ecologically, socially and environmentally.

In recent years, the world has begun to understand the potential for NbS to mitigate against, or help us adapt to, climate change. In 2022, the outcome text from the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) included mention of NbS for the first time. Dr Bruno Oberle, former Director General of IUCN, recently stated that “investing in the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of the world’s ecosystems can provide around a third of the cost-effective climate mitigation that we need by 2030 to limit warming to below 2°C”.


However, the project at Chesapeake Bay is of a scale rarely seen in ecosystem restoration. Many current Nature-based Solutions are small scale and exist in isolation, and carbon sequestration is a side benefit, not the primary objective. If Nature-based Solutions are to make a major contribution to the prevention or mitigation of climate impacts, more large-scale or global-scale projects are needed. With some degree of warming already inevitable, scaled-up NbS projects that help us adapt to climate change are urgently needed too.

Finding funds

First and foremost is the issue of investment. A recent assessment of the NbS funding landscape published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) showed that only a small percentage of international public climate finance has been flowing to natural solutions for adaptation to climate change: somewhere between 0.6% and 1.4% in 2018.

It’s not clear that policymakers fully appreciate the value of natural capital yet, and the services the natural world provides. Mangroves, for example, provide flood protection and are extremely cost-effective when compared to the building or maintenance of grey infrastructure (such as sea walls), while also storing carbon and helping to boost local biodiversity. One study found that, across 59 countries, mangroves alone can help save an estimated US$65bn annually in avoided losses in infrastructure and human systems, including health.

Initiatives like the Nature-based Infrastructure Global Resource Centre are helping conservation organisations demonstrate solid business cases for investment in NbS. The centre, set up by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, provides assessments of the potential economic value of nature-based infrastructure projects, and analyses how non-natural infrastructure projects could benefit from adding or completely replacing with a Nature-based Solution.

According to the WRI, more investment in NbS would enable a “critical mass of pilots and early-stage projects to take place around the world, in some of the most challenging conditions”. Once these grant-funded opportunities demonstrate NbS can work for different circumstances or objectives, programmes could eventually become self-sustaining, as they are in countries such as Costa Rica, where NbS are financed from within the government’s budget.


The urgency of the task at hand requires that organisations don't keep reinventing the wheel

Connecting for nature

The urgency of the task at hand requires that organisations don’t keep reinventing the wheel. Investing in the expansion of existing initiatives, rather than creating new ones, may be one way to speed up the scaling of NbS for maximum impact, according to the WRI. Often, change occurs in silos, and to really tackle global societal issues such as climate change and food security at scale, a more cohesive approach is required – connecting regional partners to share expertise.

IUCN’s Panorama platform is helping to share qualitative information about thousands of tested and replicable solutions in biodiversity conservation and other sustainability projects. The Union’s Contributions for Nature platform (see page 24) is also helping to map and quantify exactly how much its Members’ various projects are contributing towards global goals such as ecosystem restoration and climate mitigation. And last year, the University of Oxford’s Nature-based Solutions Initiative launched a new version of its Global Map of NbS Best-Practice Case Studies, which now contains information on the governance, financing, trade-offs and monitoring for each case study.

Other ambitious initiatives are helping to connect projects with shared goals in different countries and across continents. The Bonn Challenge pledges to restore 350 million hectares of deforested landscapes globally by 2030, and 32 African countries have committed to restore more than 100 million hectares of degraded land and forests by 2030 through the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative. Initiative 20x20 is aiming to restore 50 million hectares of degraded land in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries by 2030. This will improve livelihoods for lower-income and rural communities, enhance biodiversity, improve water and food security, and build greater climate resilience. The Global Mangrove Alliance is connecting an online community for organisers of mangrove projects to collaborate on campaigns, field work and policy initiatives; and alliances such as the Resilient Cities Network and Cities4Forests have helped almost 100 cities to develop green infrastructure or invest in Nature-based Solutions.

Dr Riley Dr Richard Lilley Photo: Dr Richard Lilley

However, Dr Richard Lilley, co-founder of Project Seagrass, warns that as NbS scale up, one-size-fits-all approaches become less likely to succeed. “There’s a real nuance to Nature-based Solutions, where different habitats, or even the same habitat, will offer different ecosystem servicesin different locations,” he says. “We need to be planting trees and putting in above-ground biomass across the planet for sure – but they need to be appropriate trees, the right species in the right places. Similarly, in the sea, we need that nuance – different solutions will be appropriate in different places or conditions.”

Around the world, it is often indigenous peoples and local communities that are the stewards of local ecosystems – therefore Nature-based Solutions need to include and benefit them too.

Scaling up at speed

Adapting projects to individual communities and engaging people through citizen science is essential, says Lilley. “You need everyone on board with the journey that the local area is going to go through. Community is essential to this. Not including communities is the single biggest risk factor. When someone gets involved, they [develop] this sense of ownership.”

Restoring complex ecosystems such as peatlands, forests, mangroves or seagrass meadows is no quick fix. But the need for Nature-based Solutions is urgent. So how do organisations move projects forward at pace with so many stakeholders, scientific evidence and intersecting factors to consider?

Lilley says there has to be an iterative approach to projects if we are to scale up at the speed required. When projects are developed on a grand scale, intricacies emerge that can’t always be foreseen.


“There’s always going to be a tension between science, which can be risk averse, and people who want to get on with giving it a go,” he says. “We don’t have time to wait for perfect. It’s about accepting things will fail because it is innovative, it’s new and we’re trying, so it makes more sense to assess success on a 20-year journey, rather than a two-year project basis.”

Lilley says he is in constant conversation with international colleagues to discuss challenges, share findings, learn from mistakes and develop best practice as projects progress. “Trust and a collaborative approach make such a difference to moving things forward at the pace it needs to happen,” he says.

To tackle global societal issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss together and at scale, a more cohesive approach is required that not only connects regional partners but also enables decision-makers at national and international levels to incorporate NbS into policy and law. According to the UNEP report Nature-based Solutions: Opportunities and Challenges for Scaling Up, successful scale-up will depend on the adoption of concrete targets and identification of the specific actions needed to meet those targets. Robust monitoring and constant evaluation is necessary to ensure projects remain on track or adapt to changing conditions.

Ultimately, all efforts to restore nature will remain at risk if the world continues to produce CO2 and other greenhouse gases at the levels it does now.

Dr Sandeep Sengupta, IUCN’s Global Policy Lead, Climate Change, says that although better conservation, management and restoration of existing ecosystems could help reduce emissions from things like agriculture and deforestation, and create additional carbon sinks, NbS are “no substitute for ambitious emission reductions needed across all sectors of the global economy”. Fully scaled-up investment in NbS must come alongside rapid decarbonisation, he says. If not, efforts on both fronts are more likely to be ineffective. “Every level of incremental warming beyond 1.5°C reduces the ability of these ecosystems to provide these services,” says Sengupta.


Future-proofing nature

With unpredictable change ahead, NbS need to be more dynamic, adaptable and forward-looking than traditional conservation programmes. The parameters of the project may not remain constant and the project should aim to tackle longer-term
threats, like desertification and sea level rise.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, we need to be clear about what an NbS actually is. If Nature-based Solutions are to contribute a third of climate mitigation efforts by 2030, a precise definition is required to ensure that the most effective, impactful and rigorously monitored projects are prioritised.

First defined by IUCN in 2016, the definition of NbS has since evolved slightly to incorporate the diversity of ecosystems and complexities of global societal challenges being tackled. In 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) delivered this multilaterally-agreed definition: “Nature-based Solutions are actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human wellbeing, ecosystem services, resilience and biodiversity benefits.’’

With advice from hundreds of experts and practitioners from over 100 countries, IUCN has also developed a global standard with eight criteria that ensure NbS are suitably evidence-based, robust and replicable.

As IUCN’s Global Director for the Nature-based Solutions Group, Stewart Maginnis, explains, “For Nature-based Solutions to fulfil their potential, we must ensure that the actions put in place today bring about the desired benefits for society and biodiversity. The global standard offers a rigorous, consistent and accountable framework that will help avoid any misuse and take Nature-based Solutions from the local to global scale.”