In 1999, China launched the world’s largest reforestation and conservation plan. The Grain-for-Green Program (GFGP) was intended to boost biodiversity, prevent soil erosion, rehabilitate the nation’s forests and increase incomes for farmers.
But as the project reaches the two-decade mark with a price tag exceeding $45 billion, some experts are asking whether China planted the wrong trees. Although the GFGP has improved soil fertility, scientists have revealed that in over 150 locations, the project planted just one species, leading to significantly less biodiversity.
Nature-based Solutions (NBS) – policies that conserve and rehabilitate natural environments – may appear simplistic in design but are challenging to implement. Simply planting the wrong tree can threaten the viability of natural ecosystems. NBS require long-term investments, continuous management and a lot of technical knowledge.
As more governments prepare to use NBS as a solution to mitigate the effects of climate change, there’s a lot of challenges to overcome in order to get NBS right. Here’s how to avoid undertaking these projects without technical expertise and inadequate budgets.
Bring on experts
In the 19th century, Ethiopia’s emperor planted Eucalyptus trees – known for their ability to grow quickly but are non-native to Ethiopia – to create forests for fuelwood. Because the work was undertaken without understanding how the trees interacted with the ecosystem, this project destroyed crucial native plant species and ruined the soil, making it difficult to grow anything except Eucalyptus trees.
Considering the ecological complexities of the environment where the intervention will be used should be the first step in the policy design process and will help policy-makers avoid unforeseen consequences.
New Zealand’s Climate Change Response (Zero-Carbon) Bill, for example, requires the country’s Climate Change Commission to put biodiversity first and consider the “ecological circumstances” when implementing a policy.
Sean DeWitt, director of Global Restoration Initiative at the World Resources Institute (WRI), said public servants can help navigate the challenges by working with external organisations and scientists that can help identify the landscapes and match species with the target goal.
In Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050 — a long-term climate strategy that focuses on forest protection and management — a spokesperson from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety said that the German government has established a “Climate Cabinet” to correctly outline the measures in the plan.
The spokesperson said experts in Federal agencies for Nature Conservation and Environment, as well as external consultants, will work out the details of the initiatives.
Tapping the expertise of civil service scientists within conservation, environment and science departments can ensure the environmental considerations and the right species have been selected.
Public servants can also partner with local scientists that work with community and philanthropic groups or university professors that have knowledge of the local ecosystems.
Protecting nature with public-private partnerships
The UK’s wildflower meadows are hotspots for biodiversity that capture carbon and act as a food source for several species of pollinating insects. Although wildflower meadows used to line the English countryside, their existence has dwindled to a mere 26,000 acres.
Following an EU Directive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which required the protection and preservation of grasslands in the EU, the UK was responsible for protecting wildflower meadows. But following the implementation of the directive in 2014, the number of wildflower meadows that were destroyed nearly doubled to 98%.
Local groups that live near the meadows said that Natural England (NE), the UK government advisory body responsible for conserving nature and protecting biodiversity, failed to spot rare species that would’ve qualified the meadows for protection and prevented farmers from cutting them down for land use. NE said that severe budget cuts left them unable to adequately fulfil their job responsibilities.
Harriet Bulkeley a coordinator at Naturvation, a nature-based urban innovation project funded by the European Commission, said it’s particularly challenging to get financing for NBS and relying on public funding alone to undertake these projects is a mistake.
In a study in the journal Nature, Australian scientists revealed that less than half of the world’s protected areas were managed effectively due to a lack of funding and proper government oversight.
Bulkeley added that involving the private sector and philanthropic groups in these policies is a more sustainable model to ensure the longevity of NBS as well as generate a bigger revenue stream.
Public servants can facilitate public-private partnerships by highlighting the value of the benefits of NBS not only for government, but also to generate investable propositions for investors and philanthropic groups. This requires more visibility of the social and economic returns from NBS.
Bulkeley said that often these partnerships can be tricky to navigate because government and private organisational styles and languages are varied. Creating a long-term plan to identify expectations and the end goal of the project while offering each group flexibility can make the process smoother.
Partnering with non-governmental groups also reduces the risk of funding and resources being cut due to administration changes and fraught political environments. Organisations that have an active role in the area where the NBS is being undertaken can facilitate trust that NBS are long-term, well managed and community-oriented.
For example, the Institute of Ecology in Veracruz, Mexico found that government-protected tropical forests were cut down nearly four times as fast as the ones managed by communities living on the land.
“It could be for climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation, for water, for timber and forest and food carry, jobs, livelihoods, food security. If you can get NBS right, it can lead to some good outcomes for society,” said DeWitt. — Amelia Axelsen
(Picture credit: Google Image Search)