Even though the term nature-based solutions is relatively young, its philosophy is being practiced globally for decades, if not centuries
To keep global temperature rise below 2 °C, countries around the world are promising to cut carbon emissions, though quite slowly. But, despite such climate mitigation measures, the effects of climate change will continue over the decades to come. And, we will need to continue adapting to changing climate and be resilient.
We often say, with subtle romanticism, whether governments act judiciously or not, people facing climate change will continue to adjust to its effects in their own ways. Climate vulnerable peoples' knowledge, their bravery, their improvisation — from Peru to the Philippines, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) — have been widely praised on countless occasions over the past two decades.
While we appreciate individuals' triumphs, facing a crisis like climate change is too much for individuals, families, neighbourhoods, or even for a country. We need collective global actions. But, we have to play our individual roles so that our collective efforts can join together at appropriate levels of our social, administrative, and global structures.
But, which lowest level would make our adaptation action effective? We see, feel, and experience climate change impacts in a specific geographical area we live in, grow our food, collect our water, earn our living. It is, therefore, logical to plan for adaptation keeping in mind the local surroundings.
We often see our surroundings as administrative units — a village, a municipality, or a district. But, climate change operates in a much bigger geographical area beyond artificially defined units. The floodwater, for example, we see in Belkuchi of Sirajganj district of Bangladesh enters from the Brahmaputra River flowing down from China through India. Bangladesh is only 8% of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin. What happens in 92% of the catchment in Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal influence Bangladesh's waters significantly under changing climate.
In recent years, the importance of Locally-led Adaptation (LLA) has been extensively discussed, especially how to make it effective and impactful. LLA is when communities, community-based organizations, federations, local governments, and others working at the local level identify, prioritize, plan, implement, monitor, evaluate, and learn from adaptation actions. Such actions are supported by national governments, development partners, civil society organizations (CSOs), and private sector agencies by closely working with local-level entities.
LLA actions include a wide range of ingenious solutions addressing diverse climate-related challenges. These solutions are effective at different scales offering direct and indirect social, economic, and environmental benefits to the communities. But, if we look into the world's climate-vulnerable peoples, almost all directly depend on nature for their lives, livelihoods, and well-being. It is, therefore, natural to find adaptation solutions in nature. That brings us to the concept called Nature-based Solutions (NbS).
As a term, NbS is relatively young. But its philosophy is being practiced globally for decades, if not centuries. We are troubled by many societal challenges, such as climate emergency, biodiversity loss, and water and food insecurity (Figure 1). When we protect our ecosystems, like wetlands, hills, or forests, restore the degraded ones, manage their resources sustainably, or create new ecosystems, in such a way that they help us to tackle our societal problems effectively and adaptively — we practice NbS.
The beauty of NbS is, while overcoming our problems by using nature, we not only ensure our well-being but also contribute to the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems. These dual benefits separate NbS from pure conservation actions (that only give biodiversity benefits) and community development actions (that only give socio-economic benefits to people from using natural resources).
NbS is an umbrella concept; it brings together many ecosystem-based interventions, actions, and approaches. From a climate change point of view, sister approaches such as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), ecosystem-based mitigation (EbM), and ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR) are all examples of NbS since ecosystems and biodiversity are used in them to adapt to climate change, mitigate it, and reduce disaster risks, respectively.
Like LLA, our understanding of NbS is still taking its shape. It is therefore important to know which issues are critical to defining NbS. Without that, there is a possibility of misunderstanding, misinterpreting, and misusing NbS, which may have a negative impact on our society and environment.
In February 2020, 20 leading environmental organizations proposed four guiding principles for successful NbS (nbsguidelines.info). They noted that NbS should not be considered as an alternative to the rapid shift to clean energy that we so badly need to keep the world cooler; NbS should ensure that our ecosystems continue capturing carbon, rather than releasing carbon; and NbS should enhance biodiversity and avoid, for example, large-scale tree plantations with single, non-native species.
But most importantly, NbS should be implemented with full involvement and approval of indigenous peoples and local communities, apply strong social protection mechanisms, build human capacity for adaptation, and recognize, respect, and uphold livelihoods and human rights during implementation.
These points, especially the last one, are echoed in IUCN's Global Standard for NbS. In July 2020, pulling together its two-year effort involving 800 experts from 100 countries, IUCN proposed this standard for designing and practising NbS. This standard has eight criteria and 28 indicators (Figure 2). The criteria remind us what issues make an NbS effective. Let me explain it with an example.
Imagine a hilly catchment of a river that got heavily degraded due to rampant tree cutting. As a result, we see high soil erosion, landslide, silted up rivers, much bigger floods, high human sufferings, asset loss, and infrastructure destruction. Climate change is also making things worse. So, we want to restore the catchment with a plantation program — an NbS.
Addressing one or more societal challenges is the first criterion of IUCN NbS Standard — here we want to address three: environmental degradation, disaster risks, and climate change adaptation. To meet the second criterion, we need to estimate the scale of the problem, so that we can design an effective plantation program. We also need to check if our plantation program will increase biodiversity and improve ecosystem integrity (third criterion) and is economically feasible (fourth criterion).
The fifth criterion addresses the social and governance aspect of the NbS. It is crucial that an NbS is designed and implemented by involving local and indigenous people of the locality. It should have a proper grievance resolution mechanism for the affected people. Participation of all stakeholders should also be based on mutual respect and equity.
When we implement a catchment restoration program, although it enhances certain ecosystem benefits, it may reduce some other ecosystem benefits. So, we should ensure that such trade-offs are estimated, agreed upon, and maintained (sixth criterion). The restoration program should have monitoring, evaluation, and learning system so that new evidence can continue supporting management decisions (seventh criterion). The eighth criterion of the standard expects that an NbS, like catchment restoration, should not be confined in the area where it is implemented. It should be widely practised in similar conditions and should be mainstreamed through a change in policies and regulations.
So, we now have sufficient guidelines in hand to effectively design, implement, monitor, and scale-up NbS to fight climate change. We also have a large number of research and analyses to understand what works and what does not work (naturebasedsolutionsinitiative.org). We do need to remember a wide range of issues while implementing NbS, but among them, local peoples’ and institutions' participation is very critical.
Global initiatives and processes, such as the Global Commission on Adaptation (gca.org) and the COP26 (ukcop26.org), are showing increasing interest both in LLA and NbS. As we continue to develop principles for LLA, to find ways to fund it effectively, and to identify indicators to monitor and evaluate it, it is high time to make LLA stronger by integrating NbS into it.
Bangladesh has long experience in community-based natural resource management, community-based adaptation (CBA), and ecosystem-based adaptation. The country can therefore lead the way on how LLA can adopt and implement NbS effectively. The Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund ($443 million invested in 789 projects); the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100; the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (2021−2030) (due in March 2021); an updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) 2020; an updated Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP); and the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) (due in May 2021) are creating real opportunities for Bangladesh to prioritize NbS as a core adaptation option in LLA.
Since nature is crucial for climate-vulnerable people, the landscape they live in should be part of their local adaptation solutions — nature-based solutions have to be an integral part of locally-led adaptation. Can it be a New Year resolution of Bangladesh in 2021?
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on the environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah