Long road ahead to translate NBS into practice

Successful Nature-based Solutions (NBS) are made in the details
Mapping workshop in Gwenia, Kassena Nankana District – Ghana. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Nature-based solutions (NBS) have quickly gained popularity as an umbrella term for actions that work in harmony with natural ecosystems to produce far-reaching benefits for society, the economy and the environment. However, a recent analysis of 187 proposals suggests NBS criteria need to be communicated more clearly to bridge the gap between theory and praxis.

The proposals had been submitted to the United Nations Climate Action Summit (2019) from around the world as part of an open call from the Nature-Based Solutions Coalition (see figure 1). The goal? To generate examples of NBS with high potential for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The scientists who analysed the submissions, however, found the proposals showed little understanding for how these solutions could be implemented.

Figure 1: Contributions by region of submission (63 N/As are not included)

“We thought the proposals would help us understand how people see NBS in practice – not from the theory in scientific papers, but from the perspective of what they would like to see funded by the UN”, said Christopher Martius, Team Leader for Climate Change, Energy and Low-Carbon Development at the Center for International Forestry Research – World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). “But without a clear and shared definition of what constitutes a ‘nature-based solution’ in practice, we found many submissions promised little chance of success.”

Only four proposals gave a good, comprehensive, explanation of how their ideas comprised an NBS for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and most failed to give information on safeguards, transparency or monitoring activities (figure 2). The lack of detailed explanations may be due to newness of NBS terminology, the small sample size of proposals or a general lack of understanding for how NBS differs from existing climate change and mitigation approaches, according to the report.

Figure 2: Degree to which contributions explained how they constitute a nature-based solution.

“What we saw in the proposals is similar to the old misconception about ‘easy tree-planting’,’” said Martius. “People think, ‘I’m going to just plant trees or implement another nature-based solution. It’s not so easy. To plant trees, for example, you need a nursery, land, labour, salaries, knowledge and instructions. These pieces are missing from the proposals.”

For example, a proposal might aim to conserve 30% of by 2030 but lack a series of progressive steps to reach that goal. Similarly, it might call for far-reaching legal reforms without the project leaders having any sway to influence those policy actions.

Instead, the report makes it clear that small-scale and well-planned solutions are often more transformational than global scale solutions because they have a greater likelihood of succeeding. However, it only identified three NBS proposals with both “high transformational potential” and a “high likelihood of success.” These few adaptively reflected the context of their area of implementation. Although small in scale, the higher likelihood of success for these three proposals could make them far more impactful than global-scale programmes that would apply a “one-size-fits-all solution across diverse peoples and landscapes,” according to the scientists.

In an upcoming journal article, Martius and his colleagues hope to make people more aware of enabling environments and the factors that actually result in transformational change. Ongoing research is showing that project proposals should account for the resources, legitimacy, processes, and norms that result in sustainable futures for everyone.

This work was funded by the CIFOR-ICRAF through the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (now the FTA Partnership (FTAP)).

For more information on this topic, please contact Christopher Martius (c.martius@cgiar.org)


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