IUCN creates a global standard for evaluating trendy "nature-based solutions"

Climate change illustrated: Recreation of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man' melts in the Arctic sea, 800 kilometres from the North Pole. (Credit: Keystone)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) unveiled Thursday the first-ever set of benchmarks to define an increasingly trendy term - ‘‘nature-based solutions” (NbS). The IUCN “Global Standard” aims to help governments, business and civil society evaluate the real potential of such solutions to address climate change, biodiversity loss and other related challenges.

IUCN’s Global Director for the Nature-based Solutions Group Stewart Maginnis:

“The global pandemic brought about a lot of enthusiasm to recover in a better way. The immediate challenge is to harness and enable this enthusiasm. The Global Standard is there to ensure that the actions put in place today bring about the desired benefits for society and biodiversity and avoid misuse.”

Why is this important? Smart adaptation of models provided by the natural world can help us meet climate and sustainability goals. Examples include the use of beneficial insects to control agricultural pests or the creation of urban prairies and woods to cool temperatures and absorb rainwater. But as the term “nature-based solutions” has now become so fashionable, policymakers, investors and the public also need to be able to see through the hype. In 2016, the IUCN created a clear definition for NbS.

IUCN’s new Global Standard is a product of consultations with over 800 experts from over a 100 countries to produce a rigorous and consistent framework for evaluating the real worth of NbS. That should help boost their impact, and avoid misuse of the term. Maginnis who has devoted the past two decades of his career to advancing NbS says:

“None could have imagined in our wildest dreams and most optimistic ambition such an increase in awareness, in commitment from politicians and the public. But then it brings up a problem – a very good one I must say: How do you do this in a way that is consistent, remembering that many of the people who will implement NbS will not come from the conservation community or be natural resource managers?”

What are NbS? According to IUCN’s definition, these are actions addressing key societal challenges through the protection, sustainable management and restoration of ecosystems, benefiting both biodiversity and human well-being. It is the use of natural modified ecosystems to deliver real tangible benefits that meet key societal challenges. Conservation is about conserving species but is also about good management of natural resources to give real benefits for their livelihoods. Example with climate change: trees can sequester carbon and good land management can safeguard against impacts of unusual climatic events. More than 130 countries have already included NbS-style actions – such as reforestation, green infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, or coastal protection – in their national climate plans under the Paris Agreement.

Stewart Maginnis, IUCN's Global Director for the Nature-based Solutions Group, presenting the Global Standard on Thursday.

Eight criteria for optimal Nature-based Solutions. As not all actions dubbed “nature-based solutions” provide the anticipated benefits to both society and biodiversity, the global potential of the concept is far from being fully realized. The IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management developed scientifically robust guidance based on eight criteria and associated indicators including:

  • Clarity about the societal challenge being addressed: an important safeguard against “greenwashing”;

  • Consider upstream and downstream impacts: Many projects often fail because they only focus on the immediate site rather than the broader landscape and context;

  • Biodiversity: Make sure the NbS supports and helps strengthen the integrity of biodiversity rather than undermining it;

  • Inclusion and governance: Making sure that the right people are involved and vulnerable groups are not disadvantaged;

  • Recognition and balance of trade-offs;

  • Economic viability: Nice and green is not enough, the NbS has to be competitive and efficient compared to other solutions;

  • Adaptive management:. As ecosystems develops, things change socially, economically and environmentally. The process in place has to be able to accommodate those changes or capitalize on them at times;

  • Mainstreaming potential: The innnovation should synergize with others, to optimize opportunities for sustainability scaleup.

A smoke-screen? Global Standard consists of a user guide and self-assessment tool. Should it become more of a policing tool ? Should there be an umbrella body to control the actions taken to ensure there is less talk and more verification? Maginnis:

“At the minute, our feeling is that the Global Standard should be a facilitating tool. It is set up as a self-assessment. Over time, there may be demands from companies and governments for stronger verification, but this is an immediate channel to harness the enthusiasm. We need to be very clear: NbS cannot be a smokescreen or a greenwash for continuing emissions of greenhouse gases. So NbS ony makes sense if it goes hand in hand with ambitious actions to cut emissions. I think we can still meet the Paris Agreement but only with determination and commitments from companies and government and pressure from general public.”