In partnership with UNEP

Nature-based solutions to climate change

Julia Marton-Lefèvre

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

2 April 2013 | Biodiversity, Carbon management, Forestry, Africa

Good conservation and natural resource management can provide a tangible and cost-effective response to climate change and other global challenges. Now is the time to make full use of nature-based solutions.


The slow progress in climate negotiations means that many options for early action are being foreclosed, rendering future strategies to avoid dangerous climate change more demanding and more expensive. As we work towards a new global climate deal, the international community must look at all viable options to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to respond to the growing impacts of climate change.

One option on the table is to deploy the so-called nature-based solutions, a concept coined by IUCN a few years ago in the context of climate negotiations. The idea is to use healthy and resilient ecosystems for both climate change mitigation and adaptation, with notable benefits to people and biodiversity.

Granted, the role of forests in fighting climate change has been acknowledged for some time, as captured in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism. Nonetheless, the general view has been that nature-based solutions are, at best, an add-on, if not a distraction, from the ‘real’ climate change issues at stake – developing new energy and transport solutions, building disaster preparedness and response infrastructure, and securing future fresh water and food supplies. These are all essential strategies; however they are unlikely to succeed unless they put nature at their heart. Healthy, diverse and well managed ecosystems lay the foundation for practical and sustainable solutions to global problems.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessmentand The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversitystudy clearly demonstrate the significant values that biodiversity and ecosystem services make to national and global economies. In recent years, more credible evidence has emerged to support moving nature-based solutions from auxiliary into mainstream climate action strategies. Such solutions include forest landscape restoration, ecosystem-based adaptation, and new climate finance mechanisms.


Meeting the Bonn challenge

Halting the loss and degradation of natural systems and promoting their restoration have the potential to contribute over one-third of the total mitigation of climate change that science says is required by 2030.

In 2011, the so-called Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of lost forests and degraded lands worldwide by 2020 was launched at a ministerial round table hosted by Germany, IUCN and the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration. This target directly relates to existing international commitments on climate change and biodiversity. It will contribute to the biodiversity convention target calling for restoration of 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems by 2020, and the UNFCCC goal on REDD+, which calls for countries to slow, halt and reverse the loss and degradation of forests.

In recent months, USA forest service, Rwanda, a Brazilian coalition and indigenous groups from Mesoamerica have committed to restoring a total of more than 18 million hectares of their forest landscape, or just over 10 per cent of the Bonn Challenge target. This will pump billions into local and global economies and bring a host of other benefits. According to new analysis by IUCN and partners, restoring 150 million hectares of forest and agroforestry landscapes could generate around US$85 billion per yearfor some of the world’s poorest communities. 

For example, opportunities from locally controlled forestry are vast, involving one billion people and one quarter of the world’s forests. It provides up to US$100 billion per year in goods and services (roughly equivalent to the total annual official development assistance) and a broad range of other economic, environmental, social, cultural and spiritual benefits. Overall, more than two billion hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded landscapes – equivalent to half the size of Asia – offer opportunities for restoration.


Nature-based buffers

On the adaptation side, resilient ecosystems are proven to reduce the impacts of extreme climatic events on the most vulnerable. With increasing scope, scale and intensity of climate-related disasters, from hurricanes to droughts, there is growing recognition of the role ecosystems can play in reducing the impact of such disasters.

Mangroves and coral reefs serve as buffers for floods and tsunamis, forests help prevent landslides, wetlands act as sponges that can release water in times of drought. Such natural buffers are often less expensive to install or manage, and often more effective than physical engineering structures, such as dykes, levees or concrete walls.

In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, IUCN and partners launched Mangroves for the Future (MFF), a collaborative platform for countries, sectors and agencies to promote investments in coastal ecosystems that support sustainable development. After focusing initially on the countries worst affected by the tsunami – India, Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand – MFF has now expanded to include Pakistan and Vietnam, where many such nature-based solutions are being showcased.As an example, on the Vietnamese coastline, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just over US$1 million but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million.

Although MFF has chosen mangroves as its flagship ecosystem, the initiative embraces all coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, wetlands and seagrasses. These are commonly referred to as ‘blue carbon’, as they are particularly effective at storing carbon. Recent studies have shown that these ecosystems may be able to store an amount of carbon up to five times greater than tropical forests.

Where ecosystems are resilient, they are more likely to sustain delivery of essential services– from fisheries to recreation – generating income and improving the well-being of almost half of the world’s population that lives within the coastal zone.


Carbon finance to boost biodiversity and livelihoods

Another promising approach to generate positive local outcomes both for our planet’s carbon balance and for people’s livelihoods is climate finance. Over the past four years, the Livelihoods Fund, in partnership with IUCN and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, has implemented innovative carbon projects. This new investment fund allows companies to offset their carbon footprint by investing in ecosystem restoration programmes that deliver lasting community benefits, including increased food security.

The Livelihoods Fund provides its investors with a return in the form of high quality carbon offsets. It is already supported by several major companies, including Danone, Crédit Agricole, Schneider Electric, CDC Climat, the French Post, Hermès International and Voyageurs du Monde. The Fund will store 6.1 MTe CO2 (million tonnes equivalent CO2) over the next two decades, primarily through three types of projects: the restoration and preservation of natural ecosystems, agro-forestry, and the boosting of rural energy supplies. The Fund was also the main driver in the development of a methodology for carbon accounting of large-scale mangrove restoration, which has now been approved by the UNFCCC Clean Development Mechanism. This has boosted restoration efforts by making large-scale projects more accessible and easier to implement.

Through support from the Livelihoods Fund, the residents of 450 villages in Senegal have planted more than 100 million mangrove trees in the regions of Casamance and Sine Saloum since 2009. This has improved the quality of agricultural land by reducing the build-up of salt in the soil and recreating a habitat thriving in food sources such as fish, oysters and crabs. In India, more than 65,000 people living in the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh have boosted food security after planting fruit trees on 6,000 hectares of land.


What makes a nature-based solution?

None of the major 21st century challenges of climate change, food security and economic and social development can be resolved through nature-based solutions alone, but all of these issues depend to some degree on the health and functionality of the earth’s ecosystems.

Apart from providing effective solutions to major global challenges, nature-based solutions also deliver clear biodiversity benefits in terms of diverse, well-managed and functioning ecosystems. They must also be cost-effective relative to other solutions.

As nature-based solutions are designed to reach beyond the conservation community they need to be easily and compellingly communicated as well as being measurable, verifiable and replicable. Finally, they must be designed and implemented in such a way as to respect and reinforce communities’ rights over natural resources.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre

Julia Marton-Lefèvre

Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of IUCN. Prior to this position, she was Rector of the University for Peace, Executive Director of LEAD International and Executive Director of The International Council for Science. She is a member of several boards, including the UN Global Compact, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, and the UN Secretary General’s High-level Group on Sustainable Energy for All. She is a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and a Councillor of the World Future Council. Ms Marton-Lefèvre has co-authored numerous books and papers. She is a recipient of the AAAS Award for International Cooperation in Science, Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur (France) and Chevalier dans l’Ordre de Saint-Charles (Monaco).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation, with more than 1,200 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 45 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. IUCN offers its knowledge and know-how in nature and natural resource management as a contribution to addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time.