Nature-based Solutions: critical insights

6 min read
September 9, 2020 at 2:55 PM

The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.” Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).


While there is growing awareness that drastic actions need to be taken to address the ecological urgency of today, little is known as to how to achieve this. Unfortunately, a single all-in-one solution does not exist for all of us, as this problem is essentially a collective one. It might seem an obvious claim, but let us recall that if we want to overcome one of the existential and most pressing challenges humankind has ever faced, we need to think in various ways to maximize our chances of success. In the context of sustainable development, success could resemble a world in which the current generation manages to limit the negative consequences that await future generations. 


One of the solutions identified throughout the 20th century is to use our knowledge of the functioning of ecosystems and their potential to positively affect humankind’s prosperity and ability to build a sustainable future. This article will present the case for Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and explain why they matter today more than ever. As we will see, the term NbS is an umbrella concept encompassing many different concepts that all fall under the same term. Therefore, it is important to clarify what NbS are and what they are not based on the latest reports and peer-reviewed literature. 


1. What are NbS, and why are they relevant today

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), NbS can be defined as “project solutions that are motivated and supported by nature, and that may also offer environmental, economic, and social benefits while increasing resiliency.” In another report, the IUCN also defined NbS as “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges (e.g., climate change, food, and water security or natural disasters) effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” 


Both definitions look at the win-win scenario between overcoming (societal) challenges and the proliferation of ecosystems. From an academic perspective, these definitions can seem vague as they refer to approaches meant to solve specific problems from an operational perspective. However, they hardly define the properties and characteristics of the solutions themselves. It is still unsure what the term NbS encompasses, and researchers are still assessing the different typologies today. As the relevance of NbS increased in the past decades, more and more attention has been directed towards these types of solutions in the mediasphere. From the latest report of the IUCN (cited previously) published in 2016 named “Nature-based Solutions to address global societal problems,” the main terms that fall under the umbrella of NbS are: 

  • Ecosystem restoration approaches (e.g., restoring the landscape of a forest)
  • Issue-specific ecosystem-related approaches (e.g., looking at the issue of some disasters and finding the appropriate solution to that problem)
  • Infrastructure-related approaches (e.g., building green infrastructure) 
  • Ecosystem-based management approaches (e.g., manage coastal zones and their related ecosystem services to maximize locals’ well-being) 
  • Ecosystem protection approaches (e.g., protection and conservation of some natural areas). 

Because of this multifaceted definition, NbS are essentially defined by the problems they tackle and the desired solutions. This illustration from the IUCN depicts the role of NbS with the five ecosystem-based approaches mentioned above.

Nature-based Solutions

Illustration of NbS from an operational perspective by the IUCN

A recurring topic today that comes up whenever one looks at the most salient benefits of Nature-based Solutions is their potential to lead to a less carbon-intensive society. It has become clearer that human well-being and biodiversity are positively correlated with less pollution. Consequently, NbS are becoming a fashionable topic for policymakers and for sustainability managers of companies because of their relevance to achieving the ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement to stay below the 2°C threshold. The collaborative research paper from Grascom et al. (2017) designated NbS as a cost-effective solution to reach the <2°C pathway to 2030 compared to other solutions. 


What is striking with NbS is that they rely primarily on human’s understanding of their ecosystem. Instead of following a pure techno-optimistic perspective of the ecological transition, NbS entail an interconnected relationship between human activity and their environment. The tools emanating from humankind’s logos and the technological advancements that resulted from it partly constitute the problem: fossil fuels have brought many benefits and constitute a condition for economic growth. Unfortunately, NbS cannot solve the urgent challenges by themselves. NbS represent a part of the solution to achieve the <2°C pathway in the long run. As the graph below depicts, the main solution to achieve our ambitious aim, in the long run, is the reduction of the use of fossil fuels.

Role of NbS in a Net Zero future

Figure by Griscom et al. (2017) showing the path towards a carbon net zero future and the potential role of NbS in it

However, the graph does show that NbS constitute a large portion of the solution in the short run (when looking at the first half of the 2020s decade). This trend in the following decade might relate to the low-hanging fruits of NbS to solve the most pressing problems we face. 


2. A short history of NbS: the evolution of the concept within institutions 

NbS gained both relevance and momentum when the World Bank and the IUCN thought of alternative ways to engage in the ecological transition that was to come. According to Mittermeier et al. (2008), NbS emanated from the demise of conventional engineering solutions to adapt to climate change, such as seawalls. With enough knowledge in natural sciences (e.g., biology, ethology, climatology), institutions found new ways to mitigate climate change effects while improving sustainable livelihoods and protecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity. 

It is hard to pinpoint a precise starting date for NbS as their relevance depends on the topic’s popularity in the research sphere and their institutionalization within international organizations. However, it is generally agreed that the concept of NbS was not born before the 2000s (the first peer-reviewed papers on the topic were published in 2008). 


A few years later, in 2013, European institutions (mostly the Commission) started to investigate the concept to define it clearly and relate it to ecosystem-based approaches. Since then, the EU has emphasized its communication on the potential of NbS and has included it as part of sizable investment plans, such as the Green New Deal or, more generally, in the green economy. During the latest reunion in Brussels regarding the roadmap and key objectives of the Green New Deal, which took place in December 2019, both the IUCN and the topic of Nature-based Solutions were mentioned several times. 


NbS were initially thought as science-based solutions to conserve Nature. Today, they have taken a more socially driven perspective by considering the need to provide sustainable benefits for people and the broader environment. This idea also meant that NbS could be used for other purposes beyond just nature conservation. 


Even the COVID-19 pandemic has served the IUCN to promote the concept of NbS. As Luc Bas, IUCN European Director, noted, “If we want a more resilient post-COVID-19 Europe, we will need to scale up investment in Nature-Based Solutions, for which we need a strong accounting of our natural capital at the EU level.” 


3. How the world sees NbS today

Today, most use cases of NbS are in the sector of the built environment (urban planning, architecture, industries). Using living organisms to care for our cities and the population is consistent: urban spaces are where the differences between ‘human altered ecosystems’ (cities) and the rest of Nature’s ecosystems are the most salient. A recent paper by Fernandes and Guiomar (2018) explained this idea very well by stating that NbS generally “ensure the safety of human infrastructures and constructions in contexts of conflict between natural processes and human needs.” 


Still, it is important to keep in mind that there is no single way of implementing or using Nature-based Solutions in cities. Like any investment, there is linearity in the relationship between the input (level of engineering applied) and the output (ecosystem services delivered to society). 


It can become so costly to fully use ecosystem services in cities because there is not only one issue to address but many issues for many different actors. At the same time, there is not a single solution but a myriad of ecosystem services, which generally induce trade-offs when using them. 


To conclude, Nature-based Solutions are relatively new and have great potential to change our view on the value of ecosystems, especially in urban areas. The concept of NbS encompasses many different ideas, and it is still in the process of getting refined not only by researchers but also by institutions (the IUCN is the biggest promoter of NbS worldwide). NbS are increasingly institutionalized all around the world as cities continue to grow. This is good news as they will greatly help achieve the <2°C pathway in the short and mid-term until 2050. 


About the author: Oliver Juan graduated from ESCP Europe Business School and the University of Kassel in Sustainability Management and Behavior Ecology. He is interested in the relationship between Nature and Society and adores reading and writing.