What are nature-based solutions and how can they help us address the climate crisis?

The climate crisis is dire. Sea levels are rising, increasing the risk of erosion, flooding, and extreme storms in coastal regions around the world. Heat waves are occurring with greater frequency, fanning the flames of wildfires, putting stress on wildlife habitats, and driving droughts that threaten crops and water security. Rivers are regularly hitting flood levels that once were considered very rare events. These disasters, along with other climate threats, could displace more than a billion people within the next 30 years.

As the climate crisis intensifies, how can we address people’s rising risk from rapid environmental change while also helping people and wildlife adapt?

Nature itself has a big role to play. Evidence increasingly suggests that nature-based solutionsnatural systems or processes used to help achieve societal goals—could contribute mightily to minimizing climate change and its effects. In fact, research shows that nature-based solutions and the broader land sector could contribute up to 30% of the climate mitigation needed by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement’s objective of limiting global warming.

What are nature-based solutions?

coastal mangroves

Nature-based solutions refer to a suite of actions or policies that harness the power of nature to address some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as threats to water security, rising risk of disasters, or climate change.

These solutions involve protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing ecosystems in ways that increase their resiliency and ability to address those societal challenges, while also safeguarding biodiversity and improving human wellbeing

Take mangroves, for example. Mangrove forests along coastlines are not only important for sustaining fisheries but also for providing protective natural barriers against erosion and strong storms. They filter water, provide valuable timber and food resources to coastal communities, and can store huge amounts of carbon. Conserving and restoring these ecosystems benefits people in coastal communities by reducing vulnerabilities and increasing their resilience to the effects of climate change.

In short, nature-based solutions can be a win-win for people and nature.

What is the difference between conservation and nature-based solutions?

Two polar bears walking

Conservation is the protection and preservation of the planet’s biological diversity and natural resources so that they exist into the future. It includes protecting plant and animal species, habitats, ecosystems, and important ecological services against threats. Conservation can involve setting aside parks and preserves, ensuring that species have the habitat they need to survive, or implementing laws to protect endangered plants and animals.

Nature-based solutions, on the other hand, encompass a wide range of approaches—from the restoration of habitats to water resource management, disaster risk reduction, and green infrastructure—to address societal problems. Nature-based solutions are based on the notion that when ecosystems are healthy and well-managed, they provide essential benefits and services to people, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, securing safe water resources, making air safer to breathe, or providing increased food security.

What are some examples of nature-based solutions?

What WWF is doing

Around the globe, WWF partners with governments, businesses, and local communities to develop nature-based solutions that restore ecosystems and help people adapt to climate change.

Rebuilding oyster reefs

Well-developed oyster reefs break up and absorb wave energy, protecting coastlines from wave erosion and storm damage. When these reefs disappear due to overfishing, habitat destruction and diseases, those benefits also go away. In the Netherlands, WWF recently led an NbS project to engineer new oyster reefs using living oysters, which improve water quality as they filter feed and provide nursery habitat for economically valuable species.

Fuller Symposium

The 2020 virtual Fuller Symposium, Nature-based Solutions: Global Callenges, Greener Future, convened leading experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges of nature-based solutions. Watch the sessions.

Protecting and restoring coral reefs

Healthy coral reefs dissipate wave energy, providing significant protection for low-lying communities and shorelines against flooding, storm surges, and erosion. One study found that reefs can be even more effective than human-built breakwaters at reducing the height and energy of waves. As rising seas and more intense storms push tides higher and farther inland, increasing flood risks for tens of millions of people and threatening local economies, protecting and restoring coral reefs is a smarter—and potentially cheaper—approach than traditional seawalls for bolstering our coastlines.

Keeping forests standing

Forests are one of the best examples of nature-based solutions. Home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, forests provide clean air and water, protect against erosion and landslides, and help to regulate the climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere. Primary forests, such as the Amazon, act as significant carbon sinks, sequestering huge amounts of carbon in tree biomass and soils. By preventing deforestation and degradation, which contribute around 13% of global CO2 emissions, we could significantly reduce carbon emissions while staving off the worst impacts of a warming planet.

Building greener cities

Urban development replaces forests and wetlands with buildings and nonporous infrastructure. When it rains heavily, stormwater that doesn’t get absorbed can cause severe flooding. That runoff then washes into streams, lakes, or rivers, where it can increase sediments, pollute drinking water, or harm wildlife. Nature-based solutions such as green roofs, rain gardens, or constructed wetlands can minimize damaging runoff by absorbing stormwater, reducing flood risks and safeguarding freshwater ecosystems. In addition, nature-based solutions keep cities cooler during the summer, support birds and other pollinators, and promote people’s mental and physical health.

Are nature-based solutions always the best option?

Protecting and restoring coral reefs and mangrove forests, preserving grasslands, and sustainably managing forests are all effective strategies for slowing the rate of climate change and mitigating disaster risk. Today, more than 130 countries have already included nature-based solution actions in their national climate plans under the Paris Agreement. But nature-based solutions aren’t always the best answer. For example, planting non-native trees to offset carbon emissions can be detrimental to biodiversity and can even reduce the availability of water, and the potential climate benefits don’t outweigh the cost. It’s important that we make science-driven decisions to apply the right solution in the right place.

And nature-based solutions aren’t the only solutions we should use to help countries, communities, or corporations adapt to climate change. “We should think of managing climate risks as being something like investing in stocks,” says WWF’s Jeff Opperman, Global Freshwater Lead Scientist. “It’s best to invest in a diversified portfolio. If you’re trying to keep a low-lying coastal community safe against the impacts of flooding, for example, it’s best to not to put all your investment into just one solution, like levees,” he says. “Instead, you use a range of strategies that complement one another. Nature-based solutions can be key assets in a diversified portfolio.”

In other words, addressing the climate crisis means expanding our toolkit. We already know that to mitigate the impacts of climate change, we must urgently reduce our emissions on a global scale. But it’s becoming clearer that nature must be at the heart of these efforts. And nature-based solutions—incorporated in a thoughtful way alongside traditional solutions and science-based targets—could be key to unleashing our potential for protecting people and wildlife.

“In a warming world, we risk seeing nature only as a threat with its forces arrayed against us” says Opperman. “By investing in nature-based solutions, we get nature on our side too."