Nature-Based Solutions: One Remedy for Two Ills

Oct 8, 2021 10:30 AM ET
Summary: 

We must approach the climate crisis and biodiversity loss as the twin crises they are. Nature-based solutions have powerful potential to address both.

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First, the bad news. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that the world is already locked into at least 1.5⁰C of warming before 2050. The climate crisis is inextricably linked to biodiversity loss, which the U.N. reports is occurring “at rates unprecedented in human history.” About one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

“Biodiversity loss and dangerous climate change potentiate each other in their disastrous consequences. It’s a vicious circle,” Michael Norton, environment program director of the European Academies Science Advisory Council, said in a statement. “This summer’s rollercoaster of extreme temperatures, dryness, flash floods and wildfires has been bad, but probably far better than what we may see in the future.”

Discussion of climate change mitigation has centered on timelines and temperature targets, such as 1.5⁰C by 2040 or 2050. While that is vital, it misses the fact that the climate crisis and biodiversity loss are deeply interrelated. To effectively address these existential threats, we must do so in tandem. Nature-based solutions have the potential to do exactly that — and the good news is that innovation and action in this area is accelerating rapidly.

Decade on ecosystem restoration

The United Nations declared 2021 through 2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, coinciding with the deadline to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the timeline scientists say is most crucial for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

The U.N. Decade is an opportunity to advance nature-based solutions that promote sustainability and resilience in ways that reflect the science, economic drivers and political imperatives. Governments, civil society and companies all have a role to play.

Strengthening biodiversity through design

There is tremendous untapped potential at the intersection of the natural and built environments. However, engineers and designers are often given narrow parameters with little room for innovation.

Because many projects cost millions, if not billions, owners and investors often favor conventional solutions that are perceived as cost-effective and efficient. But traditional approaches seldom consider the full lifecycle costs associated with engineered solutions — maintenance and operation, damage, demolition or reuse at the end of serviceable life — or that infusing living, green infrastructure with grey can offer co-benefits for climate, habitat and human health.

To meet the moment, we need to realize that the greater risk now lies in a failure to reckon with the past and innovate for the future. Much as governments have with the development of clean energy and transportation technologies, they have an opportunity to blaze a new trail with nature-positive infrastructure.

One visible example can be found along our coastlines: Today, 70 percent of the world’s coastal infrastructure is concrete, but forward-thinking governments are increasingly turning to living shorelines as an alternative that can help areas recover from disasters and build resilience.

For example, as part of Superstorm Sandy recovery, New York state is implementing a living shoreline project on Staten Island’s South Shore. Called Living Breakwaters, the project is made up of a collection of partially submerged rubble mound structures located between 790 and 1,800 feet from shore. Designed to replace the once-abundant oyster reef that has died out due to human activity in Raritan Bay, the natural breakwater provides habitat for marine life and protection against dangerous storm surges like Sandy’s, which ravaged Staten Island.

As part of recovery efforts, the governments of New York and New Jersey also initiated a series of wetland restoration projects. Research shows that coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in damages during Sandy, and further conservation and recovery will help the region build resilience against future storms and sea-level rise while replenishing ecosystems.

Similarly, as part of recovery from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Florida is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on two living shoreline projects in Pensacola Bay and in nearby Apalachicola Bay, off the coast of the Florida Panhandle. By constructing breakwaters and planting salt marsh vegetation, the state and NOAA aim to foster reef development and salt marsh habitat while protecting local beaches from erosion and coastal communities from stormwaters.

Nature-based solutions also can help to reverse ecological damage. For example, the process of using mushrooms to clean up toxic waste, called mycoremediation, has been applied to remove toxic ash from wildfires in California, extract crude oil toxins from soils in the Ecuadorian Amazon and remediate heavy metal contamination to help turn a vacant lot in Oklahoma City into a community garden. Companies and governments including the European Union have also employed nature-based solutions as they look to decommission old mines and extractive sites and return healthy, safe land to local communities. Phytomining could take that concept one step further, with more nature-positive ways of sourcing the metals we need to accelerate the transition to a green economy.

The potential of small-scale choices that center nature

While governments often drive large-scale, high-cost green infrastructure projects, all stakeholders can influence the biodiversity of their communities simply by considering nature in their daily choices. An analysis of biodiversity across 28 countries determined that more species would be lost if conservation efforts were focused solely on “large, intact and highly connected areas” and touted the benefits of conserving small patches of land. This is something many of us can do, including individuals, local governments, nonprofits and companies of all sizes.

The Business for Nature coalition works to harness the power of the private sector to drive change. More than 900 companies with revenues of $4.3 trillion, including WSP, have signed on to Business for Nature’s Call to Action. As one example, companies including IBM, Bacardi Bottling Corp., and BASF have integrated wildlife habitats like native meadows into their facilities — creating tangible, visible impacts on local biodiversity with relatively little effort or cost.

Solar power developers are also increasingly planting native flowers, grasses and shrubs in what has been dubbed “pollinator-friendly solar.” Research by organizations including the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Yale University’s Center for Business and the Environment has found that incorporating wildlife habitat into solar installations can build pollinator populations and improve crop yields at nearby farms. Companies ranging from Engie Distributed Renewables and Lightsource BP to Clif Bar & Company have already proven this model

Biodiversity preservation will continue to be imperative 

Biodiversity loss moving to the top of governmental and public agendas. In April, the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA) launched the São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health, a first of its kind outline of the actions necessary to achieve the so-called Great Transition, a comprehensive shift in how human beings interact with each other and nature.

In July, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity released a draft plan to halt biodiversity loss around the world by 2030, which many have compared to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The plan — which, among other things, calls for an additional $700 billion in annual funding tied to ecosystems restoration by 2030 — will be finalized at the 15th Biodiversity COP in Kunming, China, in October, ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

Despite an often-harrowing outlook, it’s encouraging that this year momentum is building to turn these twin challenges into one large nature-based opportunity for all.