Navigating the promise of nature-based solutions at COP28 and beyond

Tin Shui Wai, Hong Kong, 26 August 2018:- Tin Shui Wai central park

Head of Nature-based Solutions at UNEP-WCMC Najma Mohamed discusses recent intergovernmental consultations on NbS and what they mean for the climate agenda going into COP28

Year after year, the opportunity to avert the devastating impacts of human-induced climate crisis is fading out of sight. Commitments and actions to avert a climate emergency remain wholly insufficient: the gap between actual greenhouse gas emissions and the reductions needed is widening, while efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change remain underfinanced. Inaction on ecological breakdown is even more stark given that human life, our economies, communities and societies – where decent work, health and wellbeing, food security, clean water and breathable air are available – is dependent on the stability, health and resilience of nature. 

There is growing recognition that working with nature can help address many of the critical societal challenges we face. Nature-based solutions (NbS) have emerged as an ‘umbrella concept’ that embraces actions and approaches that work with nature to address a range of social, economic, and environmental challenges – including climate change.

Intergovernmental consultations convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) that concluded last month pointed to both the promise of NbS to deliver multiple co-benefits for nature and people, and the perils of ill-conceived interventions that lead to undesirable side effects for ecosystems and communities and erode confidence in the overall concept. With ‘nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action’ and essential to the paradigm shifts needed for accelerated climate action to result from COP28, what insights can these NbS consultations provide on the potential of nature to help address critical societal challenges?

Nature-based solutions need to be pro-people and pro-nature

In February 2022 NbS were defined multilaterally for the first time, at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). The UNEA Resolution also gave UNEP the mandate to support the implementation of NbS for sustainable development through a consultation process, comprised of both regional and global consultations. The intergovernmental consultations on nature-based solutions brought together member states and a wide variety of stakeholders from research, civil society and international organisations to address common concerns, build shared understanding, and support the implementation of NbS for sustainable development.

This final round of consultations, held in Nairobi from 9 to 13 October 2023, broadly confirmed that NbS actions can support multiple policy goals – social, environmental, and economic – and are being implemented globally. It was emphasised that decades of experience in using ecosystem-based approaches already exist, including sustainable management, restoration and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems for poverty alleviation. Evidence that investing in nature creates more resilient and sustainable societal benefits and services was shared. But standards and criteria to better define NbS were a sticking point, indicating deeper concerns around the social and environmental integrity of NbS.  

While the Resolution clearly spells out the centrality of social and environmental safeguards, concerns and scepticism remain as to whether NbS are truly pro-people and pro-nature. Incidences of corporate greenwashing and disregard for Indigenous Peoples and local community rights in projects – implemented under the guise of NbS – place the credibility and uptake of the approach in jeopardy. With projects being operationalised at various scales, from the city to company level and in a wide range of ecosystems, both the ecological and social integrity of interventions will be essential to distinguish between what NbS are and what they are not.

Draft recommendations emerging from the consultations recognise this concern and are framed largely around technical guidelines and principles to support NbS implementation, maintain social and ecological integrity, and meet the demand for direction on ‘new, predictable and additional finance’ for NbS – articulated as a major barrier to scaling up NbS throughout the consultations.

Designing nature-based solutions with financial integrity

Finance is critical to deliver the multiple benefits of NbS at scale, but access remains a key stumbling block. Experiences shared during the consultations emphasised the inadequacy of climate and biodiversity finance and the need to explore additional sources and instruments of finance for NbS. The multiple benefits offered by NbS are a strong value addition in the global policy arena, especially from a financial perspective.

But getting money to where it matters – including support to scale up NbS initiatives at local level – will be a challenge given the track record in climate and biodiversity finance. Only 10 per cent of climate finance reaches the local level, and climate finance is not systematically directed to where needs are highest. A 2020 review of biodiversity finance by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that countries’ expenditure on biodiversity and landscape protection ranged from <0.001 to 0.6 per cent of total annual government spending. Meanwhile, it is estimated that Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) conserve at least 22 per cent of the world’s key biodiversity areas and at least 21 per cent of the world’s land, but less than two per cent of global climate finance is reaching small farmers and IPLCs in developing countries.

High-integrity NbS designed with social and ecological safeguards similarly need financial integrity: finance that is fit for purpose, is delivered effectively and fairly, and gets money into the hands of those who are stewarding nature. New sources of finance for nature, such as impact investment, development finance and infrastructure finance; insights into new mechanisms for financing nature actions; and support in accessing finance for NbS were key needs identified at the consultations.

Working with nature is essential for just climate action

Society-wide transformations are needed to address the root causes of the climate and ecological crises. Increasingly, there is recognition that current economic models and ways of thinking drive the divide between people and nature. We need systemic, even seismic, shifts in the way we structure the foundation, purpose and form of our economic systems to bridge the divide and work with nature, rather than bankrolling the degradation of our web of life as we are currently doing.

NbS represent a holistic approach to working with nature to address societal challenges, acknowledging the interdependence between humanity and nature. Policymakers and practitioners who are working to create green and decent jobs, strengthen disaster risk reduction, ensure resilient infrastructure, develop healthy and liveable cities, and scale up climate action, are recognising that by investing in nature, they are investing in people. NbS therefore include practical actions that are solution-oriented, but also have the potential to transform the way we think, make policies, invest and act for a just and sustainable world.

Starting today, COP28 delegates in Dubai will strive to harness science, governance and finance to catalyse accelerated and just climate action. Nature is an intrinsic part of the solutions needed to craft pathways to a world with wellbeing and prosperity for all within planetary limits, but there is still work to do following the final intergovernmental consultations on standards and criteria to ensure that the promise of NbS is delivered.

Over the next two weeks, climate leaders need to champion high-integrity, properly financed NbS to continue the progress that has already been achieved, and build on it to meet the needs of urgent climate action at scale.

Main image: AdobeStock_225452067

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