Environmentalism evolves, learn the lesson. It is leaving aside the traditional approach to the conservation of ecosystems in their original state, to focus on the harmonious and lasting coexistence between human beings and other species. Nature-based solutions (NbS) have been a big step forward: as their name suggests, they seek to work with nature, to use it, but without abusing it, regenerating the ecosystem services it provides us –clean air and water, comfortable temperature or cycles of essential minerals–, to face great social challenges such as climate change, the degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, food and water security, human health or socioeconomic development. Let’s take a closer look at what they are, what criteria they meet, and some inspiring examples.
A global standard
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defined NbS in 2016 as “actions to sustainably protect, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that effectively and adaptively address societal challenges while simultaneously providing environmental benefits”. for human well-being and biodiversity.
In order to avoid inappropriate or misleading use of the tool (greenwashing), as well as contributing to a universal application (adapted to the context) and a comparative analysis of projects, an extensive global consultation process culminated in 2020 with the publication of the IUCN Global Standard for NbS. The document provides us with a solid framework to design and promote NbS, measure and verify its impact. It is focused on users, has a dynamic character, and facilitates application, learning and continuous improvement.
Given the magnitude of the problems, the solutions must reach a certain space-time scale. Thus, in the design phase, the systems that encompass the objective area in all its dimensions are considered: geographical, ecological, social, cultural and economic. It is the scale of the landscape, terrestrial or marine. Landscapes such as the African Great Green Wall, a wall of international cooperation to combat desertification, empowering local communities in the face of poverty and migration. The PosbeMED trans-Mediterranean project promotes reforestation and participatory management of Posidonia meadows to protect beach-dune systems, absorb up to four times more CO₂ than their terrestrial equivalents, and expand marine biodiversity.
The Restoration Network of the Mesoamerican Reef System (RRA-SAM) promotes the exchange of experiences and methodologies for the restoration of reefs and associated ecosystems (seagrasses, mangroves, dune vegetation and beaches) among experts, governments and the third sector, in the Caribbean . Coral reefs constitute a biodiversity hotspot, a natural barrier against hurricanes and tsunamis, contribute to food security through traditional fishing and activate ecotourism. All these NbS at the landscape and ecosystem scale fix carbon, generate resilience against climate impacts and regenerate the local economy by creating green jobs.
The long-awaited net zero emissions by mid-century should not be an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels, but rather a true horizon of opportunity towards a post-carbon world
Time is also an essential variable. Just think about the climate crisis and how the period of effective mitigation action corresponds to the current decade (2020-30). This temporary urgency derived from the exponential human speed collides with the slow development of natural ecosystems (imagine the growth of a tree), highlighting the imperative to stop broadcasting. NbS complement, never replace, the necessary drastic reduction of carbon emissions and pollutants in general.
The long-awaited net zero emissions by mid-century should not be an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels, but rather a true horizon of opportunity towards a post-carbon world, in which NbS provide their full range of benefits for holistic well-being and planetary.
But also biodiversity
Unlike other failed anthropocentric approaches, NBS results in a net gain or enhancement of biodiversity. The health of ecosystems goes through that of its component species, in all its diversity and functional completeness (integrity), but also through the continuity of habitats (connectivity).
We live in the anthropocene, the human being has affected most of the ecosystems. Faced with this reality, the NbS approach proposes, on the one hand, to conserve the remaining little-altered natural areas, and on the other hand, to abandon the current colonizing and extractivist paradigm in order to move towards the cogeneration of mutual benefits. Biodiversity corridors that interconnect existing green and blue zones, both in rural and urban areas, illustrate this criterion perfectly. This is the case of the Green Belt of Vitoria-Gasteiz, that of the Bay of Santander, or the program of Green Roofs and Living Roofs of Barcelona.
Economic viability from the local economy
Sustainable human development requires economic systems that provide decent livelihoods that last over time. The NbS incorporate this aspect in innovative business models whose objective is to ensure the viability of the project in the long term, defraying the total costs incurred. The impact lies in the ability to capture the value created (ecosystem services) through a variety of income sources, with appropriate financing mechanisms, on light and equitably distributed cost structures.
A holistic view understands viability from the scale of the local economy: the business fabric and in particular small businesses, a pillar of employment and equity, under the right conditions (legislative and fiscal framework), is capable of monetizing the benefits of SbN, and also contribute to its care and maintenance.
It is an intuitive idea visualized in examples such as the re-naturalized urban rivers that re-emerge in Spain and around which social meeting areas are generated where hospitality, sports or wellness businesses flourish. The restoration project of the Cádiz marshes to capture the so-called blue carbon with business credits and finance projects that stimulate the local economy and preserve biodiversity and cultural heritage, such as the recovery of old artisanal salt mines, in replica by the Mediterranean basin via the MEDARTSAL program. I know first-hand the Algarbía in Transition network of small agroecological producers and consumers in the Guadalhorce Valley (Málaga), who share and exchange in cheerful peasant markets with the help of a local currency: the Algarve.
In the next chapter we will delve into other key dimensions of NbS and criteria of the Standard: inclusive governance, adaptive management, balance of commitments and scaling strategies. With this good toolbox and European reconstruction funds, now is the time: for climate, fairness and employment… For a wild world!
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.