Climate solutions unveiled: nature’s role redefined

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by Spoorthy Raman 

  • The increased popularity of natural climate solutions (NCS), which aim to protect and restore natural ecosystems to address climate change, has resulted in misunderstandings and confusion around what constitutes such a solution.
  • Researchers distill five foundational principles of natural climate solutions and 15 operational principles to guide their implementation; among others, the principles include equity, emphasizing the need for practitioners to respect human rights and self-determination of Indigenous peoples.
  • Researchers argue that natural climate solutions that adhere to these principles are durable and effective in tackling climate change in the long run, resulting in widespread adoption.
  • While experts agree that the outlined principles reduce confusion and spur climate action, they call for tightening the definitions of some principles to strengthen the proposed framework.

Following a litany of conferences and calls that stress the urgency to address climate change, there’s growing interest and investments in nature to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, farmlands and oceans, could remove at least 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050, according to a 2021 report. Besides cooling our planet, these interventions can prevent floods and droughts, conserve biodiversity and, in some cases, provide for people’s livelihoods.

In 2017, researchers proposed 20 conservation and restoration actions, such as coastal restoration, biochar, reforestation and peat restoration, in these natural ecosystems worldwide to prevent greenhouse gas emissions. They called these actions “natural climate solutions (NCS)” and predicted that by 2030, NCS could provide a third of the CO2 mitigation needed to keep global warming below 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) by 2030.

The study spurred much interest and excitement around natural climate solutions, calling for more than $400 billion in investments in such solutions each year. However, with that surging interest came confusion and controversy among researchers, policymakers, conservation practitioners and investors regarding what actually constitutes a “natural climate solution.”

“There’s been a concomitant rise in confusion and controversy arising from not clearly circumscribing the boundaries of what a natural climate solution is and what it’s not,” says Peter Ellis from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), who was one of the authors of the 2017 study. “When, NCS as a name, gets used in different ways, it makes it harder to mobilize action effectively.”

Natural climate solutions are a climate-focused subset of nature-based solutions (NbS) — itself a hotly debated umbrella term of actions that protect and restore ecosystems and provide social, economic and environmental benefits. Though the term NbS has been used since 2008, for more than a decade, its definition was murky. In 2022, researchers attempted to quantify the core ideas of NbS, and the U.N. Environment Program adopted a widely used definition of the term. Yet, even today, concerns about implementing biodiversity and human rights safeguards still plague NbS. Considering NCS is a newer term in comparison, first proposed in 2017, its definition has been ambiguous and confusing.

The confusion and, at times, deliberate misuse of the term by corporations has led to poorly designed tree-planting programs and scientifically unverified interventions being passed off as NCS. It has also led some actors to view NCS as only a carbon removal or offsetting mechanism, or dismiss it altogether as greenwashing, say the authors. This has stalled some investments in NCS climate mitigation efforts, diverted resources from it and undermined public support for its climate actions.

“There are lots of different labels attached to things that are more a matter of wanting to assign nice-sounding terms to particular tactics than a consideration of what are the fundamental ideas that should be behind natural climate solutions,” said Daniel Zarin, head of the forests and climate change program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was not involved in the study. “A principle-based approach is very useful.”

That’s what Ellis and his colleagues, some of whom were authors of the 2017 study that proposed the term “natural climate solutions,” decided to do. Based on existing literature and best practices, they distilled a few NCS principles and laid out their arguments about what constitutes NCS.

Defining natural climate solutions

In a recent perspective published in Nature Communications, the researchers define five foundational principles of NCS. Their article also defines 15 operating principles within these foundational principles to guide how practitioners could implement NCS to achieve climate benefits and avoid negative impacts such as adding trees to native grasslands and grabbing ancestral lands from Indigenous peoples.

According to the researchers, every NCS must be nature-based. Humans must actively steward natural ecosystems to benefit the climate, and these ecosystems must not move away from their natural state more than they already are. For example, agroforestry, involving an ecosystem with farmers, crops, soil and soil microbes, can also sequester carbon and hence fit nicely into NCS. On the other hand, exotic monoculture tree plantations that replace native forests aren’t NCS, as they significantly alter the forest ecosystem.

Because monoculture species are vulnerable to future pests and climate change, they also contravene the second principle of sustainability. “It’s not a solution for the long term,” Ellis says. “It doesn’t adhere to the sustainable biodiversity sub-principle of making sure that we do no harm to biodiversity.” The researchers argue that NCS pathways must maintain current levels of climate adaptations and sustain food, fiber and wood production.

NCS must also be climate-additional, in which human intervention results in additional climate mitigation, such as intentionally letting a cleared patch of land recover naturally. These actions must last long enough to provide measurable, additional, positive climate benefits. These solutions must not be used to compensate for emissions that can be easily reduced or prevented.

In cases where climate benefits do not persist over time, “A global NCS monitoring system is needed to detect and quantify reversals, and long-term insurance and financial systems are needed to ‘pay back’ the atmosphere,” the authors say. Carbon market standards are being developed for such systems, but additional research is needed to test them.

NCS must be measurable with mitigated emissions measured in CO2 equivalents (CO2e) for easy comparison with different solutions. Since many NCS interventions are emerging, the researchers say mitigation benefits must be calculated conservatively, avoiding double counting for solutions applied in the same area simultaneously.

Finally, the researchers argue that NCS must be equitable, respecting human rights and complying with national and international laws enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Bill of Rights and the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. They must also recognize the self-determination of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

“The one that I think I’m most proud of as a novel addition to this [framework] is the equitable set of principles,” says Ellis. “We’re seeing land disproportionately stewarded by Indigenous peoples and local communities. … If the stewards are not fully engaged in the movement in a way that they feel a part of, then we will never succeed.”

Nathalie Seddon, founding director of the Nature-based Solutions Initiative at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study, says the principles align with the global standard for nature-based solutions.

“It is really important that all those criteria are adhered to by project implementers and project investors. Otherwise, those interventions will not do all the good they could otherwise do,” she tells Mongabay.

Need to strengthen some principles, experts say

The authors say a broad audience, including decision-makers, policymakers, natural resource managers, Indigenous peoples and local communities, investors, NGOs and scientists, could use their principles for accountability and guidance.

Still, the researchers acknowledge that more work is needed to precisely monitor trade-offs and ensure the additionality and durability of NCS.

In the outlined principles, Zarin points out the authors don’t fully lay out the potential of the additionality principle. He says the term “additionality” for natural climate solutions has acquired the very narrow definition used within carbon markets, which excludes ecosystems like high-integrity forests in the tropics that aren’t disappearing now but face indirect or advancing threats that erode their ecological integrity.

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“We should be able to discuss different thresholds of additionality. The narrow definition makes sense for offset purposes, in which a company wants a claim that it is compensating for emissions it cannot immediately reduce in its supply chain,” he tells Mongabay. “[But] the broader definition makes sense for contributory purposes, in which the claim is participating in maintaining climate regulation and/or biodiversity conservation roles of natural areas.”

Seddon adds that the principle about NCS being nature-based needs strengthening to say that interventions need to enhance the health of the landscape or the ecosystem and not just retain it in its current state.

“That’s going to mean they are not only good for biodiversity, which is a very important thing in and of itself, but it also means that that landscape is going to be more resilient in a warming world,” she says.

Suneetha M. Subramanian, a sustainability institute research fellow at the United Nations University in Tokyo, who works on biodiversity and human well-being, says debates and interventions focused solely on climate, without considering people’s rights and biodiversity issues, can be short-sighted. She points out that leaving out values of nature that aren’t “measurable” in metrics such as CO2e, as outlined in the proposed principles, can set a “dangerous trend.”

Instead, she argues that we need to find approaches to integrate complex metrics, such as how humans interact with their environment in evaluating climate mitigation actions.

“By ignoring some of the interconnectedness that lies in such climate, biodiversity and human well-being realms, we are doing a huge disservice to such lived experiences,” Subramanian says, and as a result, “solutions themselves have become problems.”

Ellis hopes the study starts a global conversation around NCS, where everyone is invited and feels empowered to have good, healthy debates around the proposed principles by engaging in forums like naturebase, a web platform that identifies potential for nature-based interventions, and Restor, a global network of restoration practitioners.

“We need to stop talking and start doing stuff,” he says.

This article originally appeared in

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