Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society

Submitted by Megan MacGillivray | published 7th Jun 2021 | last updated 25th Aug 2021
A cartoon image of a typical UK countryside scene. There is a railway line running across the bottom of the image, party obscured by daisies and bluebells. In the background there are a series of rolling hills with trees, footpaths and buildings. The logo for the British Ecological Society is placed in the bottom right-hand corner of the image.

A cartoon image of a typical UK countryside scene. Credit: British Ecological Society. 

Introduction

Nature-based solutions (NbS) address societal problems in ways that benefit both people and nature. The main focus of this report is the joint role of NbS for addressing the climate and biodiversity crises we currently face. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions as “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural and modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, to provide both human well-being and biodiversity benefits. They are underpinned by benefits that flow from healthy ecosystems and target major challenges like climate change, disaster risk reduction, food and water security, human health and are critical to economic development.”

Natural habitats act as NbS for climate if they sequester carbon (contributing to Net Zero targets) or provide adaptation to climate change effects (for example, by reducing flooding, protecting coastline against sea-level rise, or creating cool spaces in cities). As well as these climate benefits, they can enhance biodiversity, create improved and more resilient ecosystem functioning, enhance human wellbeing and provide economic benefits, in terms of monetary value and job creation. NbS are based on the understanding that ecosystems naturally provide ecosystem services. Therefore the protection, sustainable management and restoration of ecosystems can maintain and enhance the provision of these services.

Despite the huge range of benefits NbS have, they should be seen as complementary to other climate and conservation actions, not as a replacement to them.

This report aims to provide examples of opportunities for NbS across a range of habitats, as well as to discuss some of the complexities involved in planning for NbS. The report also outlines a detailed analysis of the tools, financial mechanisms and policies required for effective delivery in a UK context. Policy change will be necessary to overcome some of the challenges associated with NbS and to ensure that they fulfil their potential,. The rewards of NbS are vital in meeting national climate change and biodiversity targets.

Download the full publication from the right-hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Methods and Tools

The BES (British Ecological Society) Policy team issued a ‘call for experts’ on this topic. This received responses from over 100 interested experts. Lead author(s), contributors and reviewers were found for each chapter based on experience, fields of expertise and relevance to the UK-context.

In order to ensure the chapters were reviewed robustly, those who reviewed the chapters were not involved in any of the stages of writing the report. The length and content of each chapter reflects the habitat type and the availability of or gaps in the evidence.

Lessons Learnt

This report identifies five key themes which emerge across the multiple habitats and multiple NbS studied. The key messages of the report are summarised below for each of the key themes: 

1. Nature-based solutions for climate and nature

NbS enable nature to help resolve the problems of climate change, both in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration and adapting our infrastructure and livelihoods. NbS such as peatland restoration are valuable because they reduce emissions. Other NbS can help offset emissions that cannot feasibly be reduced by economic, behavioural or technological change. NbS can also help us adapt to climate change, not least by reducing flood risk and protecting coastal communities from rising sea levels and storm surges. ​Strategic and well-executed NbS will simultaneously provide significant additional public goods. This includes biodiversity benefits that could help drive the delivery of conservation targets and also benefit people’s health and wellbeing. 

However, NbS are not a panacea for meeting Net Zero by 2050 and reducing biodiversity loss and cannot be seen as a substitute for the significant emissions reductions across other sectors and conservation actions that are needed to meet this goal.

2. Nature-based solutions for human health and prosperity

NbS provide human wellbeing and economic benefits. In terms of wellbeing benefits, spending time in nature can boost human health and wellbeing, which became particularly apparent during the recent pandemic as more people spent time in nature, benefitting from its restorative effects. In terms of economic benefits, NbS can be particularly effective in recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, stimulating ‘green’ employment in the short term and supporting sustainable economic growth in the medium term. This forms part of a green approach and investment to economic recovery.

Nonetheless, delivering NbS at the scale necessary to make a significant difference will require state investment, and changes in the legislative and policy architecture to encourage private investment. The identification and development of clear markets and the environmental and financial benefits of private investment will also need to be carefully monitored. Routes for private investment alongside public finance are emerging but need further development.

3. Getting the right frameworks and policies in place to deliver nature-based solutions at scale

NbS opportunities and delivery approaches are evolving. Each nation of the United Kingdom is currently developing many post-European Union policies. This creates a window of opportunity to ensure that cornerstone policies and legislation for the environment, society and economy enable the delivery of effective NbS at scale. Ambitious post- Brexit proposals, combined with long-term targets (e.g. Net Zero for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050) can create a favourable environment for adopting NbS and for stimulating private and public investment.

Policy, governance and evaluation methods need to develop to encourage uptake and achieve the benefits of NbS. To achieve both nature and societal outcomes, NbS require a broad policy and governance scope, and shared knowledge resources. Multiple interests are involved in the governance of NbS across a variety of scales and there are challenges associated with working across different policy areas, as well as generating effective partnerships. We recommend a working group or groups to assess both the opportunities, and the existing policy and governance frameworks to deliver NbS. Additionally, with a mix of private and public interests, state involvement in governance structures can be vital for the effectiveness of NbS and enforcement of regulations. Finally, an assessment framework is needed for transparent assessments at multiple spatial scales and that can be utilised by all key stakeholders. With the right frameworks in place, NbS can make a significant contribution to national and international commitments.

4. Getting the right nature-based solutions in the right places

The multiple benefits of NbS require careful spatial and project planning to deliver multi-sectoral benefits and integrate NbS with land use while ensuring both biodiversity and climate benefits. It is also essential to address any trade-offs and avoid perverse outcomes. This requires the right data, diagnostic tools and the capacity and expertise to interpret and find solutions for all objectives and desired outcomes. This will require an increase in present capacity, including in the public sector, both nationally and locally, with many local authorities lacking the resources to employ ecological and environmental specialists. An appropriate multi-stakeholder and multi-level governance framework can help overcome existing resource and skill deficits by combining public and private sector input, but must ensure independence of assessments from narrow sectoral interests.

A variety of landscape-level planning approaches relevant to NbS exist or are emerging. These include the Ecosystem Approach, Local Plans, Local Natural Capital Plans and many others. These participatory, interdisciplinary and evidence-based approaches aim to balance conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources with fair and equitable sharing of the benefits and the potential to address climate change.

5. Getting the right evidence for nature-based solutions

There are knowledge gaps and uncertainties which hamper the more widespread use of NbS. These knowledge gaps are a barrier to developing the full potential of NbS for climate, nature and people. Knowledge and evidence about the opportunities and effectiveness of different NbS interventions is lacking. 

Applied research across disciplines will be key for NbS innovation and evaluation. Whilst this may attract some private funding, strong government funding will be necessary, including to provide assurance of independence from vested interests. It is also necessary to overcome barriers often experienced in getting scientific research accepted, understood and translated effectively into policy and practice. Barriers include the use of academic vocabulary by ecologists and conservationists, the use of tools and models that are complex and difficult to understand, and failure to capture the inherent value of nature in economic models. Characteristics of scientific assessments that have successfully influenced policymaking include a multi-disciplinary approach, involvement of decision makers and other stakeholders in the assessment process, and a clear statement of the implications for human wellbeing. Effective communication with decision makers and the public is critical, both directly and indirectly via multiple media.

Further resources

Comments

Interesting report - appreciate the information on calculating carbon sequestration. Readers may be interested in the Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) in Devon which is the managed realignment of an historically altered estuary. It will create 55hectares of saltmarsh and mudflat attracting a variety of wading birds, and also, it's hoped, enhance well-being among local residents and tourists. LORP is part of the Promoting Adaptation to Changing Coasts project, which has a similar scheme in the Saane Valley in Normandy. For information see http://www.lowerotterrestorationproject.co.uk and http://www.pacco-interreg.com