An Introduction to Nature-based Solutions

Submitted by Meadow Poplawsky | published 30th May 2022 | last updated 23rd Jun 2022
two birds standing in shallow water surrounded by plants in a wetland

Wildlife in a Virginia wetland. Restoring wetlands can be an effective form of nature-based solution for reducing the impacts of floods, as wetlands are able to absorb large amounts of water and then release them slowly. Photo by Rachel C on Unsplash.

Introduction

Rapid anthropogenic development has caused two major global environmental crises, creating some of the most pressing issues threatening our societies today. The first crisis is the catastrophic loss of biodiversity, with the most recent Living Planet Report showing that, on average, population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by 68% globally between 1970 and 2016. The second crisis is climate change, which is displacing human communities, shifting species distributions and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme events such as droughts, wildfires and floods. There is growing recognition that, because these two crises share the same drivers and are closely intertwined, actions to tackle them should consider both issues in tandem.

Nature-based solutions have been widely heralded as interventions which can mitigate climate change, adapt to the effects of climate change, and slow the rate of biodiversity loss, whilst also supporting sustainable development and human wellbeing. Because of this, there has been a lot of interest in nature-based solutions over the past decade as an approach to simultaneously adapt to climate change and foster human wellbeing and biodiversity.

Definitions of nature-based solutions

“Nature-based solutions” is a broad term and, as a result, has a broad range of definitions. The Nature-based Solutions Initiative provides the following definition:

“Nature-based solutions involve working with nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human well-being and biodiversity. Specifically they are actions that involve the protection, restoration or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; the sustainable management of aquatic systems and working lands such as croplands or timberlands; or the creation of novel ecosystems in and around cities. They are actions that are underpinned biodiversity and are designed and implemented with the full engagement and consent of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.”

Learn more about the Nature-based Solutions Initiative

In short, nature-based solutions involve working with nature to deliver benefits for humans and biodiversity. Nature-based solutions often draw on ancient traditional knowledge of land management practices.

How can nature-based solutions contribute to climate change adaptation?

Nature-based solutions such as reforestation or nature regeneration have gained a lot of recent interest for their ability to reduce emissions and increase sinks of greenhouse gasses. As such, nature-based solutions have an important role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. However, some climate change is inevitable, and we are already seeing the effects of climate change, from heatwaves in China, floods in Germany to droughts and wildfires in California. Learn more about the principles of climate change adaptation with our introduction to climate change adaptation.

Nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation involves working with biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, as well as potentially exploit opportunities associated with climate change. According to an IIED briefing on NbS, examples of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation include, but are not limited to:

  • Planting vegetation on slopes to prevent landslides,
  • Restoring coastal habitats to address sea level rise and storm surges,
  • Applying integrated water resource management to address water shortages,

Managing forests sustainably to prevent erosion and regulate water flow.  

Case studies of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation

Nature-based solutions in urban areas

Climate change is causing temperatures all around the globe to rise in the summer months. This has an especially great effect in cities due to the urban heat island effect, in which urban areas experience much warmer temperatures than surrounding rural areas. Cities commonly experience temperatures 5-15°C warmer than surrounding areas. This is a major challenge for cities, as it means that residents are much more vulnerable to heat waves, which can lead to heat stroke and even deaths in extreme cases.

A study on urban tree canopy cover based in Madison, Wisconsin, found that tree cover causes a significant cooling effect in the city. This is because trees reflect much more sunlight than darker surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. Additionally, water evaporates from tree leaves which draws heat away from the city due to the latent heat of evaporation. This study found that a canopy cover of 40% leads to substantially cooler city temperatures. As such, urban greening can be a key solution to decrease the vulnerability of cities to heat waves and high summer temperatures.


A tree lined street in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Mathias Arlund on Unsplash.

Nature-based solutions for climate-smart agriculture

Bangladesh is a country which is highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. One of the most destructive impacts of climate change in Bangladesh is expected to be an increased frequency and severity (increased magnitude, extent and depth) of flooding. These floods can affect up to 70% of Bangladesh’s total land area and have detrimental effects on peoples’ livelihoods and health. Agriculture is the sector that is currently most severely damaged by the annual floods caused by the monsoon season, and the damage is expected to get worse as climate changes.

Floating agriculture is a traditional practice in Bangladesh, reinforcing the idea that nature-based solutions often have roots in ancient management practices. Floating agriculture involves weaving together aquatic plants (such as water hyacinths) to form a floating bed. This bed can rise and fall with the level of the water. Crops are planted on this bed, meaning that the crops avoid water logging, and the damage to crops caused by flooding (sometimes up to 45% crop loss) is greatly reduced. Studies have shown that this method can increase agricultural productivity because the crops benefit from the nutrient-rich matter of the plant bed, which reduces the need for fertilisers. Overall, the use of floating agriculture will reduce the vulnerability of Bangladeshi farmers to floods in the monsoon season.


Floating gardens in Bangladesh. Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction

As temperature increases, the frequency and severity of natural disasters will increase, and sea levels will rise. This is extremely dangerous for coastal communities, who will become increasingly vulnerable to these disasters, with detrimental impacts on health, livelihoods, and food and water security.

In eastern India, an area of mangrove forest has been protected from deforestation and overexploitation since 1985. A study compared damage to villages from cyclones and storm surges for villages that were protected by mangroves and villages further away from the protective mangroves. The study found that mangroves protect villages and crops from flooding, even during a cyclone with winds reaching 260km/h, with a storm surge of 9m. This study also found that mangroves provided better protection from the cyclone than an artificial embankment which was built to protect a village. In fact, the embankment resulted in maladaptation, as it trapped water, resulting in more crop damage than villages with no embankment. In addition to the disaster risk reduction benefits of mangroves, there is a huge range of co-benefits: mangroves are biodiverse communities which provide breeding and feeding grounds for fish, they can be sources of fodder and time, they reduce erosion, and can provide livelihood benefits by promoting eco-tourism.


A mangrove forest. Photo from the IUCN

 

Summary

Overall, nature-based solutions involve working with nature to deliver benefits for humans and the planet. This article provided some examples to show how nature-based solutions can be used to adapt to climate change. However, it is vital to remember that the main attraction of nature-based solutions is that they provide multiple benefits, so can also provide benefits for biodiversity, climate change mitigation and human wellbeing.

Suggested Reading

General introductions to nature-based solutions and nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation:

Bibliography with many examples of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation

Case studies mentioned in this article

Case studies which can be found on the weADAPT platform

Read more NbS articles in the Nature-based solutions Theme