How can nnature-based solutions - actions to conserve, manage or restore nature to address societal challenges – be used for combating biodiversity loss and supporting climate change mitigation and/or adaptation and disaster risk reduction while delivering further benefits including human health? This question was central at the workshop on Mobilizing up-scaling of Nature-based Solutions for climate change throughout 2020 and beyond organised by the European Commission on 4th and 5th February in Brussels.

From a relatively marginal position, nature-based solutions are increasingly recognised as a fundamental part of action for climate and biodiversity. Participants heard from one of the co-chairs of the IPBES Global Assessment, Josef Settele, and David Nabarro, Nature-Based Solutions Coalition Facilitator, both that authoritative research indicates that NBS can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 and that the issue is rapidly coming to the top of political agendas globally. If we can achieve nature’s mitigation potential of 10-12 gigatons of CO2 per year, it was suggested, this will play an essential role in stabilising warming to below 2 °C by 2050. 

This notion that climate and nature are strongly interconnected are giving nature-based solutions crucial political weight and momentum. There are a growing number of reports and platforms being developed to showcase their role, including the recent Nature-Based Solutions Contributions Platform and the Compendium of Contributions Nature-Based Solutions, hosted by the UN Environment Programme as part of the recent UN Climate Action Summit. The flagship report of the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) makes a plea for more nature-inclusive development. And the European Green Deal identifies nature-based solutions as a critical part of Europe’s response to these twin crises. In the run up to crucial meetings of the Convention on Biodiversity, to be held in Kunming in October 2020, and the UNFCCC, taking place in Glasgow in November 2020, it appears that 2020 could signal the coming of age of nature-based solutions.

But will 2020 prove to be a golden year for nature? Most obviously, nature stands to be exploited by those who are seeking an easy way out of action on climate change – as the debate over the Trillion Trees programme demonstrates. Yet on a different register, there are more deep-seated political risks to address. A common theme running through the discussions in Brussels was the very different ways the global discourses on nature on the one hand and climate on the other have evolved and become institutionalized in different governance modes, monitoring and evaluation schemes, as well as in actions on the ground. Bringing these two ‘worlds’ together will not be without pitfalls and risks.

The attractiveness of the discourse on urban nature-based solutions was noted as an example of what could be at stake. In this discourse the multiple benefits of nature for the daily lives and livelihoods of various communities is relatively strong and gives traction to a multiplicity of emerging nature-based solutions, many of which are highly contextual and experimental. As we are finding in the NATURVATION project, assessing such initiatives solely on the potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to technological options would most certainly favour the later over the former. But such evaluations tend not to take account of the broader societal benefits, and more importantly the different levels of social acceptance facing each of these kinds of intervention let alone the potential of such pathways for ‘nature-inclusive development’ in the future. Without a strong approach to recognising the wider contribution of nature to society the potential for making 2020 a golden year for nature and society may be lost.

In Brussels this month, research and policy communities bought new perspectives together to deepen our understanding on these issues shedding new light on the pros and cons of possible options for steering nature-based solutions into the climate mainstream. This debate will be one to watch as momentum gathers pace for positioning nature-based solutions as the key means through which we can make progress for both biodiversity and climate change in this critical year.

Ton Dassen works in the Department of Spatial Planning and Quality of the Local Environment at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and on the NATURVATION project.