The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a natural marvel and the world’s most extensive coral reef system. The ecological diversity and make up the GBR is extensive – including 1500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and 240 species of birds.
Rising sea temperatures have led to an epidemic of coral bleaching – when coral polyps expel algae, turning the coral white – leading to the death of 67 percent of the coral living in the northern part of the GBR.
In 2018, the Australian government released the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan, aiming for the GBR to be the best managed marine ecosystems in the world. The plan allocates a budget of over $1.2 billion to ensure that the GBR is sustainability managed and biodiversity and species are protected to improve water quality.
Conservation of the GBR is one example of a “Nature-based Solution” (NBS) — a policy that preserves, rehabilitates, protects and sustainably manages natural habitats, species, and ecosystems that have been damaged by human activity for environmental and societal benefits.
A nature-based approach to a policy problem eschews what advocates call “grey infrastructure” — human-engineered structures — or other conventional responses, in favour of using nature itself.
The term started appearing in scientific literature in the early 2000s despite prior efforts to protect and restore natural environments.
Notably, in the 1960s, the South Korean government began one of the biggest tree restoration projects in the world following the destruction of the Korean War.
Millions of trees were planted, with conservation and management of the land to follow.
The project drove an increase in the biodiversity of the forest: soil quality increased, as well as species populations.
And the revitalised forests created employment opportunities for rural workers, and is now being used for recreational uses.
For the first phase of the project, the South Korean government outlined their economic goals as well as the goals of the NBS. The economic goals included buying local seeds from farmers, promoting reforestation work, and requiring citizens to switch from fuelwood to coal. The approach formed part of a wider economic boom: following the completion of the first ten year stint of tree planting, GDP was 11 times greater than in 1953. Following the second, it was 108 times greater.
What are the benefits of Nature-based Solutions?
As environmental issues reach the forefront of public consciousness and scientists continue to warn of the disastrous consequences of climate change, destruction of the planet still increases every year.
According to Greenpeace, nearly 80% of forests have been destroyed, and the WWF says that there is a “very serious biodiversity crisis”.
With little time left to reverse the damage from rising temperatures, policymakers need long-lasting solutions.
Although the majority of countries are committing to meeting climate goals, many governments are slow to use natural resources that are readily available and budgets for these policies are not being allocated.
And “grey infrastructure” projects are often the chosen solutions for climate issues in urban planning.
Yet NBS provide benefits beyond climate and biodiversity, but for wider society as well.
From urban greening projects in cities in Italy to ocean conservation efforts in New Zealand, studies show that NBS generate GDP growth, create jobs, alleviate poverty, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make the water and air cleaner, offer greater food security, provide mental health benefits, and simply make cities and rural areas more attractive.
Sofia Faruqi, Manager of the New Restoration Economy Initiative at the World Resources Institute (WRI), said that public servants are not aware that NBS have the opportunity to meet several of their goals across departments.
“Often public servants think of NBS as something very environmental, which has benefits for climate change and biodiversity, but they are just not making the link that this is something that can create jobs, help subsistence farmers, increase incomes, and can also help increase the quality of life through better air and water quality for all of their citizens.”
By the numbers:
The estimated economic contribution that nature makes to services globally
The number of people employed in the forest sector around the world
The number of rivers that have earned protected legal rights from courts in the countries they reside. The Atrato River in Columbia, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India are all guaranteed health, conservation, and protection
The yearly contribution the Great Barrier Reef makes to the Australian economy
The percentage of species populations that have declined from 1970 to 2014
The amount of carbon dioxide German forests captured in 2015
A grey area: Why aren’t more governments using NBS?
NBS are highly ambitious policies that require strategic design and extensive knowledge of ecosystems, biological diversity and the natural environment.
They can be complicated to design without technical expertise and large-scale NBS may require management that spans years, if not decades, which can be a particular challenge when political agendas continuously shift.
There is also a significant budget shortfall to fund conservation and restoration policies. Currently, only 7 percent of public climate financing is dedicated to land use.
But despite not providing any environmental or social benefits, public servants often choose to use “grey infrastructure” or technology to cut down maintenance requirements and provide a quick fix to environmental problems.
Many scientists argue that technology alone cannot save the planet from climate change. And although grey infrastructure can protect land from climate-driven hazards and extreme weather, such as seawalls for protection against tsunamis and large waves, studies show that such structures are costly to maintain, lack flexibility and have long-term effects on ecosystems.
For instance, in Portland, Oregon, it was estimated that in 2017 the city spent a cumulative $370 million on grey infrastructure, such as pipes and sewer separations, to tackle its stormwater runoff problem.
The annual rainfall exceeds a staggering 37 inches (the US average is about 32). When it rains, excess stormwater collects dirt, soil, and other pollutants and then drains into the main water system.
But in 2007, the Portland government launched the Green Streets project alongside traditional grey infrastructure to reduce costs and rid the stormwater of pollutants.
The city planted beds of shrubs and trees on sidewalks, absorbing the runoff and limiting the flow of water to the drainage system. It marked a new, mixed approach to tackling their problems with excess rainfall; employing the power of nature itself alongside traditional, “grey” infrastructure.
Not only has Green Streets reduced pollutants in stormwater, but has also improved the air quality, decreased temperatures and increased urban green space.
Portland’s Green Streets project is an example of how it is possible to augment grey infrastructure with NBS. Blended approaches can create more resiliency and ease financial burdens while switching to purely nature-based systems.
Quickfire Q and A
What’s the biggest challenge in introducing NBS?
The first struggle for public servants is simply getting NBS on the agenda. Farqui said environment ministries need to articulate how NBS benefits all areas of society so that every government department gets on board.
What are the first steps in the policy design process?
The first step is identifying the main objective that the NBS is intended to tackle. For instance, if the aim is to improve air quality, it’s necessary to ensure that the right type of species of tree is selected to reduce pollution and placed in an area likely to have the biggest impact. Secondly, pairing with a scientist or a biodiversity expert that knows the area, the species and land formation likely to achieve the main objective is optimal for ensuring long-term success.
What type of NBS exist?
There’s a range of NBS that can be used depending on the ecosystem, species, and level of ecosystem degradation that can often be classified into three categories: conservation, restoration, and sustainable land management.
Conservation is a method of preserving and protecting natural environments, resources, and wildlife. NBS that conserve natural environments ensure that the ecological balance of natural environments remain intact.
The Australian and Queensland government’s release of their Reef 2050 Plan — which outlines the plan to protect and preserve reefs over the course of several decades — is one example of conservation.
Restoration is the process of repairing degraded ecosystems to the state they were before. Restoration NBS, such as planting trees in forests that were cleared for land use, accelerates the regrowth of natural environments.
One restoration initiative underway is a project led by Conservation International and the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, which is aiming to be the largest reforestation project in history. Their ambitious plan kicked off in 2017 and seeks to curb carbon emissions by planting 73 million trees in the Amazon by 2023.
Sustainable land management is overseeing the use and development of natural resources. NBS that are categorised as sustainable land management requires continuous decision-making on how land is being used and monitoring to ensure sustainable usage.
The state government of Andhra Pradesh, India launched a sustainable land management farming initiative in 2018. Under the government’s plan to be India’s first natural farming state, six million farmers will transition to 100 percent chemical-free agriculture to improve soil biodiversity and reduce costs for farmers. – Amelia Axelsen
(Picture Credit: Pxabay)