Time to team up with nature to adapt to climate change

As global leaders embrace natural climate solutions at the UN Climate Summit in New York, IIED’s research shows how to tap the potential of nature-based solutions in tackling the impacts of climate change. 

Xiaoting Hou Jones's pictureHannah Reid's picture
Blog by
26 September 2019

Xiaoting Hou Jones is a researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group; Hannah Reid is a research associate with IIED's Climate Change Group and biodiversity team

Crops float on water

In her recent video with The Guardian, Greta Thunberg introduced a ‘magic machine’ that ‘costs very little’, ‘builds itself’ and can be used to help us fight climate change. This magic machine is nature. Thunberg’s point is clear and powerful: nature can pull carbon from the atmosphere and is an indispensable ally in helping us adapt to climate change impacts

Nature: an effective ally in adaptation

Natural climate solutions work by protecting and restoring nature and sustainably using natural resources. These solutions support healthy ecosystems which can help us mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Nature-based solutions (NbS) for climate change adaptation, also known as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), are a subset of natural climate solutions. Examples of EbA include participatory plant breeding to cope with drought in China, forest conservation in Chile to reduce landslides and avalancheswetland restoration in Nepal to secure water supplies, and improved mangrove management and restoration in El Salvador to restore water flows.

IIED’s recent research with partners across 12 countries shows that EbA can be a cost-effective adaptation approach. It can provide long-term adaptation benefits for a range of stakeholders, especially those who are poor and vulnerable and who depend on nature for their livelihoods.

By working with nature, EbA can also provide additional environmental and economic benefits: for example, rangeland restoration in South Africa reduces local communities’ vulnerability to drought while providing more job opportunities; forest restoration and agroforestry practices in Mount Elgon in Uganda reduces landslide risks while also increasing forest cover in key watersheds.

Nature, now!

So how are we engaging with nature, this powerful ally, capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere and helping us adapt? Evidence shows we are not only ignoring it – we are rapidly weakening it.

The assessment earlier this year from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) highlights that biodiversity, which underpins the resilience of nature and the services it provides, continues to decline at an alarming rate in every region of the world.

At this week’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York, global leaders called for urgent and bold actions to address the dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss so we can work better with nature in our fight on climate change.

Examples of commitments include the UK government pledging £100 million for landscape solutions that tackle biodiversity loss and sustainable livelihoods on a big scale and Germany providing €200 million for the World Bank’s PROGREEN program, which aims to raise US$1 billion to tackle biodiversity loss and create more resilient landscapes. 

Developing countries including Costa Rica, Fiji, Bhutan, Myanmar and Seychelles have all been implementing NbS and have committed to scale up their in-country actions. Meanwhile, 19 global businesses under the World Business Council for Sustainable Development - including Mars, Danone and Nestlé – launched the coalition One Planet Business for Biodiversity. Its aim is to protect and restore biodiversity and to support NbS.

During the summit, IIED and partners led a series of events on NbS that highlighted existing actions and knowledge on EbA, the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships, indigenous people and communities’ knowledge, and the role of these groups in translating ambition and commitment into action. 

How to work with nature? 

Ahead of the summit, IIED, UNEP-WCMC, IUCN and GIZ launched a searchable database that can navigate more than 240 tools and methods relevant to EbA. The navigator will support policymakers and practitioners, including those who have made commitments at the summit, to plan, assess, implement, valuate, monitor and mainstream EbA. 

In addition to using the right tools, experiences from 12 countries show that, to work effectively with nature, governments need to prioritise EbA in policies, provide more funding and strengthen cross-sectoral collaborations. Civil society actors can support governments by providing better knowledge and capacity building on how to best legislate for, implement and manage EbA activities.

Empower local communities to champion natural climate solutions 

Indigenous peoples and local communities have been working with nature for decades: they depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods. Nature is their first and often only defence system against extreme weather events.

Their traditional knowledge, coupled with science and research, is indispensable for us to understand how to best work with nature. Research from IIED shows how supporting and strengthening membership-based local institutions – such as forest and farm producer organisations that can organise, mobilise and support community-led NbS – is critical for a climate resilient future.

“We are living in the beginning of a mass extinction and our climate is breaking down,” states Thunberg in her video, followed by an impassioned plea: “But we can still fix this – you can still fix this.”

Harnessed with better knowledge, increased political ambitions, dedicated funding and empowered local communities, indeed we have a fighting chance.

About the author

Xiaoting Hou Jones (xiaoting.hou.jones@iied.org) is a researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

Hannah Reid (hannah.reid@iied.org) is a research associate with IIED's Climate Change Group and biodiversity team.

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