By protecting and nurturing natural spaces, nature-based solutions encourage healthy ecosystems, large and small. From vast oceans, forests and peatlands, to sustainable farms and dense pockets of green within our growing cities, the importance of these spaces cannot be overstated. They have vast potential as carbon sinks, absorbing huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO²), and they play a vital role in sustaining priceless biodiversity. They are the Swiss Army knife among the tools to fight climate change.
The challenge with this approach is that we need to “recognize and address the trade-offs between the production of a few immediate economic benefits for development, and future options for the production of the full range of ecosystem services".
We have disrupted Earth's natural balance. We can help restore it.
By damaging carbon sinks, such as oceans, forests and peatlands, we not only reduce their capacity to help absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere, in some cases we actually reverse it. Nurturing these natural resources is one of our best tools in the fight against climate change.
Human activity has not just stripped environments for resources, it’s also made the land inhospitable for the animals, insects and plants that thrive there. Around a million species are currently under threat of extinction. Take the Amazon rainforest, for example. The Brazilian research institute, Imazon, reported that in one year, between August 2020 and July 2021, nearly 10,500 km² of rainforest was cleared - the largest area in 10 years. As well as its potential as a giant carbon sink, the Amazon is also home to 3 million species of plants, animals and insects.
When even one part of a natural system is damaged or destroyed, it sets off a chain reaction that reverberates through the whole system, impacting species, food chains and nature's complex balance. Conversely, by consciously building a nature-positive understanding of world around us, we open up untold opportunities to limit and improve the way we interact with nature. This is the start of systems leadership.
Climate solutions are all about systems thinking
The G7 nations have committed to protect 30% of the planet by 2030, with the express goal of protecting biodiversity, but how do we do this? Nature-based solutions, to be effective, must replace, repair and protect environments in a sustainable, context-driven way, and with consideration for indigenous peoples. It requires the highest levels of systems thinking.
For instance, many believe that the most effective tree-planting initiatives are location-appropriate, with consideration for local communities an
d biodiversity. The World Economic Forum launched the One Trillion Trees initiative in 2020, which aims to unite governments, NGOs, businesses and individuals in a "mass-scale nature restoration". The Great Green Wall project, uniting over 20 countries, is bringing life back to the Sahel region of Africa. In 15 years, 2 million drought-resistant trees have been planted, and 5 million hectares of land restored.
Influential climate researcher Zeke Hausfather has cautioned that “carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is only temporarily stored in trees, vegetation and soil, while a sizable part of our emissions today will remain in the atmosphere, much of it for centuries and some of it for millenniums to come". He reminds us that “for carbon to be permanently removed by planting trees, forests would have to remain in place for thousands of years. On top of that, the trees would have to be planted on land that would have been forest-free for those same thousands of years had the trees not been planted".
And it's not just trees and dry land that need protecting. Around the world, climate initiatives are underway to protect and restore oceans and waterways, along with the astonishing diversity of life they sustain. These include marine reserves, the planting of seagrass meadows and mangroves, and wetland restoration. We also need to rethink the agricultural sector.
Transforming agriculture is an important first step
Farming occupies around 50% of Earth's habitable surface. Through regenerative agriculture, we can farm land in a sustainable way, with particular focus on soil health. There is growing evidence that regenerative practices protect landscapes, and help keep carbon sequestered in the soil. What's more, regenerative techniques demand up to 45% less energy overall than conventional approaches, which is good for the planet and for farmers’ incomes. By working with nature as we transform our food systems, we can rise to the challenge of feeding 10 billion people sustainably.
Nature-based solutions will improve climate mitigation, protect biodiversity and improve human health, but a piecemeal approach will never see the full potential realised. Systemic, and sectoral changes are needed.