Nature-based solutions: how we can use nature to protect nature
4 min read
If we look after the natural world, the natural world will look after us
When you think of environmental solutions, decarbonisation, and energy you’re likely to conjure up images of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, all this sort of stuff.
Lots of big brains and bigger bucks are going into developing and deploying numerous high-tech solutions to help realise our visions of a better future. This tech is dreamt up by start-ups in Silicon Valley and boardrooms in Seoul, built in factories in China, and shipped around the world to be put to work in the fight against big bad carbon.
And that’s all great, we undoubtedly need this human ingenuity and ground-breaking science. But there’s another, humbler, simpler category of solution that can be used to protect our climate: nature itself.
Not only is protecting our natural world the end, but it is also a key means by which we can reach this end. These approaches are known as nature-based solutions (NBS), or natural climate solutions (NCS, when specifically referring to CO2 mitigation) and we’ve written this brief piece to give you the d-low on these vital initiatives.
“If we look after the natural world, the natural world will look after us” David Attenborough
What are nature-based solutions?
If you want the boring, long-winded definition of NBS then check out the EU’s interpretation here. The short version is that NBS are any initiatives where nature itself is the solution to social and environmental problems. This problem could be global warming, biodiversity loss, falling crop yields, water shortages, desertification, flooding, you name it, and nature can be a key ally in overcoming these challenges.
NBS come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s not just planting trees to sequester carbon but is also restoring coral reefs to help dissipate wave energy and protect coastal communities, or incorporating green spaces into cities to purify the air, or protecting wetlands that can store floodwaters. The list goes on and on:
Besides often having unique characteristics for addressing a certain problem, NBS have the additional advantage over, lets call them artificial solutions, in that they’re totally natural. This usually means no dirty supply chains, no mining of resources, no waste. There’s a circularity to them that you don’t often find with other forms of climate initiatives. I don’t know about you, but we prefer things natural.
What does Selva have to do with nature-based solutions?
Well, we’re using a nature-based solution, reforestation, to address the challenge of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere. Estimates from smart peeps at the World Economic Forum suggest that NBS can provide one-third of carbon abatement needed by 2030 for the world to be on a net-zero pathway. That is A LOT. This includes reforestation, prevention of deforestation, soil management, wetland restoration, amongst others. For climate change, NBS aren’t a nice-to-have, they’re a key part of the puzzle that need supporting and expanding. You can learn more about why we’re focusing exclusively on reforestation in our dedicated article here.
In fact, when it comes to the critical task of removing carbon from the atmosphere, natural solutions like forests, grasslands and seaweed are far superior to anything that we mere humans have come up with. Mother nature has been developing the art of photosynthesis for the past 3.2 billion years and has got pretty good at it.
Carbon abatement with trees and forestry can absorb a ton of carbon at a cost of ~$10-50, whereas direct air capture, giant fans that suck CO2 out of the sky, currently do it at a cost of ~$1000/tonne and require lots of energy to run. Biochar, an initiative that turns organic mass into solid stable carbon, costs in the range of $100-$600/ tonne.
A climate solution is not a solution if it bankrupts up.
What are the problems of nature-based solutions?
A valid concern around nature-based solutions for carbon abatement is the issue of “permanence”. How can we be sure that these forests will survive for the long run and not be burnt down, releasing all the CO2 back into the atmosphere again? This is where some of the more high-tech solutions like DAC and biochar have an undeniable advantage.
There is of course no guarantee of permanence with trees. But, through a combination of the correct sustainable forestry practices (eg tree spacing to reduce wildfires), technology (eg satellite imagery for accurate, quicker monitoring), and the correct financial incentives for the communities on the ground (eg income streams generated by selling carbon credits), huge strides are being made to ensure that forests, and the carbon they sequester, stick around for centuries. This will be crucial in building trust and establishing credibility for NBS after historical instances of mismanagement and deceit.
You may also hear people say that nature-based carbon removal solutions like reforestation are a distraction from the task of CO2 emissions reduction but for reasons that we’ve written about extensively here and here, carbon removal, as well as reduction, is crucial if we want to reach our net zero goals.
A simple analogy to help understand carbon removal and its importance: if you were on a sinking ship, you wouldn’t want everyone patching the hole, you’d make sure that some of the crew were working to bail the water out.
On top of this, the usual problems associated with carbon markets (eg regulation, structure, liquidity etc) can also be applied to NBS. To really scale these natural solutions and attract the finance needed the market needs to mature. Imagine a regulated liquid stock market but for carbon credits: regulated project developers (eg forest owners) sell carbon offsets/credits that they’ve generated at a transparent price to buyers who know exactly what they are buying because reliable data is publicly available, open to scrutiny and comparable across projects (like the financials of company listed on a stock market).
There are some very tricky issues that politicians and start-ups like Sylvera are trying to figure out to help create a market like this and unlock much greater flows of finance into NBS. For example, there is no single standard for what a quality voluntary carbon credit is and not all carbon credits are created equal. Should one tonne of carbon absorbed by a tree, with risk of being released back into the atmosphere, be the equivalent of one tonne permanently absorbed by Direct Air Capture? No, certainly not, but how to quantify the difference in quality and therefore price, and how does this contribute to a net-zero target?
Our hope is that as these markets develop, the credibility and scale of NBS will improve significantly and attract much more investment, to generate much greater positive impact.
What we're trying to say is...
We cant put it much better than the GOAT Sir David: "If we look after nature, nature will look after us". There’s a tendency to focus on sexier high-tech solutions to our problems but often the answer we are looking for has been here all along.
A smooth energy transition and decarbonisaton is such a monumental challenge that it requires implementation of every solution that we have that can move us closer to our goals. No single solution can do it alone and no single solution is perfect. Trees and other NBS are just one part of the puzzle, but they are a crucial part.
Help us strengthen this NBS by joining Selva today to plant trees to offset your personal carbon footprint.