In Portland, Oregon, annual rainfall exceeds a staggering 37 inches (the US average is about 32). When it rains, excess storm water collects dirt, soil, and other pollutants and then drains into the main water system. In 2017 it was estimated that Portland has spent a cumulative $370 million on infrastructure, such as pipes and sewer separations, to tackle the problem.
Then in 2007, the government launched the Green Streets project. 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.
Green Streets is an example of a “Nature-based Solution” — 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 a massive tree restoration project 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.
Due to their complicated design, and the fact that these projects require management that spans years, if not decades, public servants often choose to use “grey infrastructure” instead.
But Portland’s Green Streets project is an example of how it is possible to augment grey infrastructure with NbS. Alongside the new plant beds, the city has begun to install “ecoroofs”, which add vegetation and a layer of soil to a number of roofs throughout the city.
Ecoroofs decrease stormwater runoff by up to 50 to 60%, catching rainwater before it leaks to the ground. They also improve air quality by filtering pollutants, lower energy costs by acting as an insulator layer to buildings, and preserve fish habitats by preventing polluted water from draining into natural environments.
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.
Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, said in a panel discussion that NbS and green infrastructure are a less costly and generate significant investments.
“NbS are of course good for the economy and they are also good for society,” he said.
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 free chemical agriculture to improve soil biodiversity and reduce costs for farmers. – Amelia Axelsen
(Picture Credit: Pxabay)