Is investing in nature a solution to economic and environmental problems?
Harnessing nature can boost our efforts to fight climate change. Using these nature-based solutions can also provide economic opportunities and improve human health and well-being.
Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2021). And it accelerates an imbalance of the natural world, through extreme weather events.
At the same time, ecosystems are rapidly degrading, causing not only the loss of species, but also the “services” they provide, such as temperature regulation, water purification, carbon storage , crop pollination and their myriad benefits to human life.
Nature is our best ally in the fight to keep the earth at a liveable temperature. Nature-based solutions to climate change can also help address economic and social issues of inequality, stretched public budgets and limited natural resources.
What are nature-based solutions?
“Nature-based solutions” are based on a simple – and old – idea. When nature is healthy, it provides multiple benefits and services, not only for the environment, but also for human health and well-being, as well as for economies and societies.
These nature-based solutions typically need to “solve” multiple challenges – benefiting both humans and nature.
Nature-based solutions can include:
- Green infrastructure – such as permeable surfaces, green walls and green roofs.
- Soil conservation and recovery – for example, by increasing soil moisture, organic matter and biodiversity and reducing soil erosion through sustainable land use programs, careful and evidence-based planting and the ‘Organic Agriculture.
- Protect settlements from floods and seas – including through the restoration or creation of wetlands, salt marshes and riverside parks.
- Promoting biodiversity and its services – for example, by restoring ecosystems or creating insect-friendly urban green spaces.
- Regenerate places and connect communities – including through urban food culture and community gardens,
- Improving air quality and lowering temperatures in our cities – such as the increase in green plantations and the abundance of trees in the city.
How can they help society and the economy?
Nature-based solutions can create green jobs and business opportunities, for example in landscape architecture, soil care, construction, horticulture and agroforestry. Other roles include wildlife officers, outdoor educators, urban farmers and more.
In addition to creating sustainable jobs, nature-based solutions can also save money. Improving water management or recreational services can help save money at the household and government level – for example, rooftop gardens and city parks provide cooling that would otherwise have been produced artificially via air conditioning. Studies suggest that green roofs can provide energy savings of between 15% and 45% of annual energy consumption through reduced cooling costs (Anderson and Gough, 2022).
They have also been shown to reduce the concentration of air pollutants, particularly ozone and nitrogen dioxide (Anderson and Gough, 2020). A European project – Green City Solutions – has developed the ‘CityTree’: vertical panels that contain tough, pollution-treating plants like moss that can help clean the air at a fraction of the cost and space of conventional plantings, and can be set up in transport hubs and school playgrounds.
Prior to 1998, Augustenborg in Sweden was an area that suffered from socio-economic decline and frequent flooding due to overflowing drainage systems. But the modernization of sustainable urban drainage systems in the neighborhood – achieved by creating ditches, retention basins, green roofs and green spaces – has been shown to have positive effects on biodiversity, water runoff rates and community cohesion, while reducing unemployment and tenant turnover rates.
Additionally, other nature-based solutions, such as urban agriculture, can improve diets and food security, connect communities, and provide a potentially significant boost to household budgets.
Basing solutions on nature’s designs is often efficient and frugal, as is the case with urban green spaces. These reduce the impact of the “urban heat island effect” – when natural land is replaced by buildings and pavements, which absorb and retain heat (Jandaghian and Berardi, 2019).
This is particularly important considering that there is a physiological upper limit to humans’ ability to adapt to rising temperatures (see Figure 1). There are also business benefits: ecosystem-based adaptation to prevent climate-related flooding, for example, can prevent damage to infrastructure, saving private companies and insurers lost revenue.
Figure 1: Global Wet Bulb Temperature
Source: Science for Environment Policy, adapted from Ariel’s checklist.
Note: Based on temperature and humidity, assuming clear skies (maximum solar load) and atmospheric pressure of 1 ATA (760 mm Hg).
But these approaches do not necessarily represent a miracle solution to the environmental challenges we face. Climate change mitigation policies can lead to the search for nature-based solutions with low biodiversity value, such as the planting of non-native monocultures. In China, for example, this practice has led to a drastic reduction in the water table.
Moreover, not all types of “green” interventions are sustainable and may have other unintended effects – although many are well intentioned. For example, the ecological gentrification of urban areas can increase real estate prices and alter housing opportunities and the commercial infrastructure supporting low-income communities.
Data on the extent of their impact is also limited at present and what is available focuses more on environmental impact than on health and social effects (Seddon et al, 2020). It is also biased towards the North, while the South remains more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (Chausson et al, 2020).
A recent manual presents a comprehensive framework for more robust evaluation and monitoring to determine their performance, cost-effectiveness, and requirements for effective delivery (Dumitru and Wendling, eds, 2021).
Despite the lack of consistent and accurate data, a comprehensive study found that 59% of nature-based interventions reduced the effects of climate change, including flooding, soil erosion, and loss of food production (Chausson et al, 2020). Other work has shown their effectiveness in reducing temperatures over the long term (Girardin et al, 2021).
How much do nature-based solutions cost?
The value of the total benefits of nature-based solutions is complicated to calculate and riddled with assumptions. But some early attempts show that, generally, the value of the benefits would easily outweigh the cost, because nature does much of the work.
For example, globally, the cumulative costs of inaction to address land degradation are high: between 1997 and 2011 the world lost an estimated $6-11 trillion (£5-9 trillion ) per year due to land degradation. The costs of restoring natural ecosystems, rewarding agriculture that keeps soils healthy, and incentivizing greener business models have been estimated to cost well under $2.7 trillion per year (2 £.2 trillion).
The overall benefits of restoration are estimated to outweigh the costs by an average margin of ten to one. An example of large-scale land restoration is the Great Green Wall project – an African-led solution to develop an 8,000km natural barrier against desertification spanning the width of Sahelian Africa . The project will also help provide food security, jobs and livelihoods to the millions of people who live in its path.
Evidence suggests that these investments are worth making and preclude further spending in the future (Anderson and Gough, 2022). Analysis of an urban forestry project in Toronto indicates that every dollar spent yields between $1.35 and $3.20 in benefits for city residents.
Indeed, the returns to a regenerative restoration economy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and biodiversity loss are estimated at $125 trillion per year, or up to once and a half the global GDP of $93 trillion in 2021. Business models are also estimated to create 395 million jobs by 2030.
It should be emphasized that at any scale, equitable and inclusive governance of nature-based solutions can be expected to lead to fairer distribution of benefits, leading to better socio-economic outcomes. .
It has also been estimated that nature-based solutions also have the potential to provide more than a third of the climate mitigation effort needed until 2030 to keep global warming well below 2°C. Currently, only a tiny fraction of climate finance is invested in these types of interventions.
We know that big investments are needed to decarbonize the economy and fight climate change – why not use that money to benefit health, wealth and nature all at the same time?