Nature-based Solutions FAQ
Nature is a key part of the climate solution. While efforts to foster the vast range of solutions nature can offer to mitigate global warming and adapt to climate change impacts, it is important to stress that nature-based solutions are not a substitute for decarbonisation efforts such as the much-needed energy transition and that those practices need to be considerate of local context and implement with the highest level of integrity and transparency. In this context, we’ve gathered the most pressing questions to understand what NbS are, what they can do for people and the planet and how they should be delivered.
This page is updated constantly. If you have questions that need answering, send them to NCS@tnc.org.
What is the difference between Nature-based Solutions (NbS), Ecosystem-based Approaches (EbA) and Natural Climate Solutions (NCS)?
While it is true that often those terms are intertwined, there is a slight division where specific actions regarding climate change, especially mitigation and/or adaptation measures, are in place.
In many circumstances, NbS, NCS and EbAs are used for the same purpose – to relay meaning on the essential services natural ecosystems provide for the protection of biodiversity, people’s livelihoods and the climate. That means actions that protect, restore and sustainably manage landscapes, providing a range of benefits.
The term Nature-based Solutions (NbS) is broad enough to apply to initiatives that have both climate change mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity conservation as primary objectives, addressing a range of societal challenges from food security to disaster risk, including climate change. Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) is the wording of choice when it comes to having a more focused definition of initiatives that involve the protection, restoration and management that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe. The same applies to ecosystem-based approaches, though the acronym EbA is most often associated with those of adaptation.
What is NOT considered NbS?
Nature is a vital part of our ways of living, being intrinsically connected to cultural heritage, economic activities, health, climate and biodiversity. In this context, actions that seek to protect, restore or sustainably manage natural ecosystems could easily be framed as NbS. However, it is important to stress that, in order to be considered a nature-based solution, the initiative needs also to address societal benefits:
NbS are NOT JUST about offsetting – it’s about planting the right trees in the right places to the benefit of the people and animals that live there.
It is ALSO NOT a one-fits-all solution – consideration for local context is key for any NbS project, new or existing.
Ultimately, NbS IS NOT a substitute for rapid decarbonisation – they can raise the ambition profile to achieve the climate targets while preserving the natural world and its habitants.
What is the full range of benefits that nature-based solutions can provide?
Adopting a holistic approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation is always preferred – and nature must be a critical part of it. Protecting natural ecosystems, restoring degraded ones and adopting better practices for sustainable land management are proven solutions that address multiple challenges and result in a positive impact on social, environmental and economic factors.
In addition to potentially removing up to 11Gt of carbon from the atmosphere, nature-based solutions are estimated to have the potential to lift a billion people out of poverty; create 80 million jobs; add an additional $2.3 trillion of growth to the global economy, and also prevent $3.7 trillion of climate change damages. Best of all, they are available to deploy immediately, are scalable and can transform key industry sectors, such as forestry and agriculture. Below are some examples of what they can offer:
- Carbon removal: Natural climate solutions can provide around one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to achieve the 1.5ºC target of the UN Climate Paris agreement. By 2030, nature-based solutions across all land-based ecosystems could result in removals of at least 5GtCO2e per year, going up to 11.7GtCO2e. By 2050, this could be between 10-18GtCO2e per year (IUCN and the UN Environment Programme)
- Biodiversity: Conserving and restoring natural lands (and employing more sustainable forestry and agriculture management strategies) will protect native habitats for plants, animals and other organisms.
- Food security: Soil conservation and other agricultural improvements can boost productivity, helping to meet the growing demand for food without expanding the footprint of farming.
- Air and water: Terrestrial and coastal ecosystems play an important role in improving air and water quality and protecting water security. For example, restoring wetlands boosts the land’s ability to filter fresh water. Agricultural practices that improve fertiliser efficiency help protect the water supply from agricultural runoff. Reducing fire-driven deforestation helps keep the air clear and breathable. Protecting forests can even help to restore natural rainfall patterns.
- Economic benefits: Often, people think of climate change mitigation and development as being at odds with one another. In reality, well-crafted development policies and programs can create growth and prosperity while also curbing emissions. Worldwide, some 2 billion people depend directly upon the land and coastal systems for sustenance. Improved farming practices improve their livelihoods, and can revitalize rural communities. Sustainable forestry can have similar benefits for individual incomes and communities. In fact, nature-based solutions are estimated to have the potential to lift a billion people out of poverty; create 80 million jobs; add an additional $2.3 trillion of growth to the global economy, and also prevent $3.7 trillion of climate change damages.
- Indigenous peoples and local communities: Protecting intact habitats can also secure rights for peoples and communities that are originally from there. High-integrity NbS projects are designed and implemented by and with the meaningful participation of local communities, respecting their traditional knowledge and practices. In addition, NbS can support the creation and growth of sustainable economic practices, such as agroforestry, fisheries and conservation works, as well as help communities access direct finance from carbon credits to deploy in well-being initiatives for health, education, local businesses and more.
What are the problems with NbS?
First, many critics misunderstand NbS and NCS as an alternative for rapid decarbonisation of the energy industry. It is clear that both need to be deployed concomitantly. It is important to understand as well that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each initiative needs to be considerate of the local context, those being on the ecological, political and human sides.
Another common misunderstanding regarding NbS relates to the use of the term ‘solutions’ as it lacks recognition of ontological notions of nature, reducing it to a ‘services’ provider – implying that nature is only beneficial in its utility to humans, not necessarily for its own sake. However, the direct involvement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, as well as consideration for local ecosystems and biodiversity is key to providing a solution that respects ontological notions of nature, including spirituality, traditional practices and natural habitats for wildlife to thrive.
NbS are also sometimes reduced to discussions around offsetting and tree planting schemes leading to monoculture. It is important to note that NbS comprise much more than restoration schemes, with the protection of intact ecosystems and sustainable practices for managing productive lands being amongst the top best solutions for mitigation and adaptation purposes. As for restoration, consideration for native plants and the implementation of comprehensive monitoring and evaluation guidelines, with the participation of local communities, is vital to prevent such problems and ensure long-term positive benefits.
Another point of the question refers to the permanence of sequestered carbon in the soil since events such as fires could result in carbon being re-released into the atmosphere. However this argument fails to recognise the holistic benefits of ecosystem protection and restoration, as well as it reinforced the need for constant monitoring and protection of forests, grasslands and wetlands. Food, health, economy – our whole life system depends on healthy ecosystems. Neglecting such environments due to the possibility of adverse events is bound to cause more problems than solutions, including releasing more of the carbon already sequestered by these ecosystems.
The science behind NbS and climate change
What are NCS pathways and how do they respond to local ecosystems and biomes?
There are 20 science-backed effective approaches, or pathways, to nurture the best of what nature can do to limit global warming and preserve our natural world. These solutions are a product of a scientific study that considers the world’s different biomes, such as grasslands, wetlands, forests and drylands. See all here.
What are carbon sinks and how are NbS related?
A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. The ocean, soil and forests are the world’s largest carbon sinks. Carbon sequestration is the removal and storage of carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks through geological or biological processes, it slows or reverses atmospheric carbon pollution and mitigates global warming.
Can NbS accelerate the transition to net-zero? How?
Net-zero emissions by 2050 will not be enough to limit rapidly rising temperatures or improve people’s quality of life. Immediate action must also be taken to halt and reverse biodiversity loss while ensuring fair access to natural resources for all. From wetlands and oceans to forests and grasslands, nature is the best and most cost-effective carbon sink. If deployed at scale, Nature-based Solutions could save over 10 Gt of CO2 emissions per year. Protecting, managing and restoring nature can not replace or delay other decarbonization efforts, including rapidly accelerating greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities and Environmental Justice
How can nature-based solutions promote and safeguard Indigenous rights and knowledge?
Indigenous peoples and local communities govern at least one-quarter of the world’s lands and 80% of the world’s biodiversity, acting as stewards of our global carbon sinks and habitats. Protecting intact forests can also safeguard the native peoples that depend on them. High-integrity nature-based solutions must be designed in a way that respects and engages meaningfully with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, preserving traditional knowledge and practices and valuing their stewardship. Improving land tenure rights for Indigenous Peoples and local community groups is proving to be one of the most effective ways of managing, protecting and restoring nature.
How can NbS projects be mindful of environmental justice claims from the Global South?
Countries in the Global South are notably the ones most vulnerable to climate change impacts, responsible for the majority of commodities needed for food systems, as well as amongst the most important in terms of mitigation potential for natural climate solutions as they hold vast areas with natural ecosystems which are home of thousands of plants and animal species vital for the planet’s survival. Historical facts such as colonisation and imperialism have however made many of these economies dependent on the unsustainable extraction of natural resources. NbS can offer a sustainable alternative to commodity-driven activities, as well as help direct much-needed finance towards the Global South, helping secure indigenous peoples’ rights and value their ancestral knowledge and stewardship of our natural world.
NbS, offsetting and carbon markets
What are carbon markets and how does Article 6 of the Paris Agreement relate to NbS?
Carbon markets are trading systems through which countries may buy or sell units of greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to meet their national limits on emissions, either under the Kyoto Protocol or under other agreements. Article 6 is an agreement about how countries can cooperate and trade mitigation outcomes (essentially, carbon credits) with each other to help meet their climate targets (NDCs) and raise overall ambition.
Are all NbS offsets?
Carbon offsets are actions or activities intended to compensate for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases elsewhere into the atmosphere due to industrial or human activity. They can be bought, sold or traded in carbon markets. NbS however refer to a whole range of solutions that aim to help absorb C02 from the atmosphere via natural ecosystems, at the same time as providing ecological and social economic benefits.
What do climate activists mean by greenwashing? Are all offsets greenwash?
Offsets only work as a climate solution if done in tandem with ambitious internal corporate action. Companies should first set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets consistent with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with climate science, and develop strategies that prioritize offsets only after introducing practices and changes to avoid, minimize, rectify and reduce emissions internally. Only if some emissions remain after those reductions are underway should businesses examine how offsets may increase their ambitious targets. If a company is buying offsets to avoid its own climate action – yes one could argue it’s greenwash.
What are carbon credits?
A carbon credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gases that has been reduced, avoided or removed by a mitigation activity. Carbon credits are issued to project developers after they’re able to meet stringent rules set out by governments or a carbon accounting standard and after being verified by a third-party auditor. It is important to note that carbon credits thus represent actions already taken, rather than anticipated actions.
When used as part of a larger reduction plan, carbon credits facilitate setting ambitious mitigation targets because carbon credits help manage costs. If the costs of emissions reductions are higher than expected, resulting in reduced action, the atmosphere can still be protected through increased investment in carbon credits, as an interim action.
Can carbon markets accelerate the path to net zero? How?
Offsetting is just one of several tools that can implement NCS action in the near term, and similarly just one part of a broader suite of tools needed to achieve credible emissions reduction targets. In general, offsetting provides a tool for difficult-to-decarbonize sectors to address their unavoidable emissions in the near term, while simultaneously pursuing the technological innovation, management practices, and asset turnover required for delivering longer-term transformations. Offsetting also enables organizations to raise their ambition to support global efforts to net zero by 2050 above and beyond just decarbonizing their own business emissions footprint.
How do we avoid double counting?
Additionality is often said to be the most important characteristic of carbon credit, but it is also the most difficult to define. Carbon credit standards take a variety of approaches to test for additionality, including testing whether there is financial additionality (the project wouldn’t happen without carbon finance), regulatory additionality (the project is not already mandated by law), or other approaches. They also include uncertainty discounts, to ensure they are conservatively estimating the mitigation benefits they provide.