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FEATURE: Nature-based solutions to climate change are on the rise

Following the recent release of the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land, Dr Sumetee Gajjar, Senior Professional Officer, ICLEI Africa says the report reflects the increasing popularity and proven results of nature-based solutions to climate change.

In this feature, I note the growing awareness and role for nature-based solutions, in technical assessments of the UN scientific bodies on climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem services. I also advocate for transdisciplinary research and practice-based knowledge to develop context-specific nature-based solutions, especially for cities.

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land states with high confidence that “land ecosystem services, and the biodiversity upon which they depend, support human subsistence and well-being”[1]. The Special Report is produced alongside scientific assessments produced by other UN Scientific Bodies, with the aim of achieving coherence and complementarity. The latest Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (May 2019), highlights the role of governments, businesses and communities, in addressing climate change, alongside biodiversity loss and land degradation. Both technical assessments review a range of solutions at local and regional scales, as a means for achieving ecological restoration, climate adaptation and mitigation, and risk management. The IPBES recommends nature-based solutions, to address climate change in urban areas.

When nature-based solutions are applied in cities and city-regions, they help achieve urban resilience

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land establishes the crucial connection between urban nature and health, by noting that urban residents’ interactions with nature will reduce the risk and occurrence of various diseases, and improve subjective well-being[2]. Rapid urbanisation is cited as one of many existing societal and environmental challenges[3], which get further amplified by socio-economic drivers of land use change such as technological development, population growth and growing demand for multiple ecosystem services. Climate change and land degradation are recognised as threat multipliers for people pursuing vulnerable livelihoods, increasing their sensitivity to climate events, with further impacts on income and food security. Research conducted as part of the IDRC-funded ASSAR programme, has shown that this vulnerability plays out differently for at-risk populations, in urban and rural settlements, leading to a range of adaptation and coping strategies, including migration (and displacement, even when it is in the same country or region). SRCCL states with high confidence, that urbanisation intensifies warming of cities and city-regions, through the heat island effect, and that cities are found to intensify extreme rain events. This builds upon Working Group II’s contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report[4].

The SRCCL draws complex interlinkages between climate change and modern agriculture, land degradation and global food security. It provides policy-makers and decision-makers with evidence-based recommendations. Increasing forest cover and enhancing the carbon-carrying capacity of soil, are some of the critical, land-based solutions emanating from the SRCCL, along with due consideration for indigenous people and their sustainable practices.

The IPBES Global Assessment presents a range of potential nature-based solutions, which address the dual challenges of ecosystems degradation and the climate change, experienced by communities across rural, urban and peri-urban terrains. For one, governments can plan ecologically representative networks of interconnected protected areas. These would include key biodiversity areas and ensure trade-offs between societal objectives that represent diverse worldviews and multiple values of nature. The IPBES recognises that expansion of infrastructure for development, may come at environmental and social costs, including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, land-grabbing, population displacement, and social disruption. The opening up of large areas on the planet to new threats due to infrastructure expansion of roads, cities, hydro-electric dams, oil and gas pipelines, is established, but needs further research integration. For example, urban metabolism studies consider greenhouse gas emissions from urban activities and the built environment, but are yet to establish a clear biodiversity and ecological impact consideration.

Urban planning options with low ecological impact include designing of compact settlements, with nature-sensitive roads, and shared transportation networks. A range of nature-based options that cities have succeeded in applying include combining grey and green infrastructure (such as wetland and watershed restoration and green roofs), enhanced green spaces through restoration and expansion, urban gardens, maintaining and designing for ecological connectivity and promoting accessibility for all (with benefits for human health). The IPBES Global Assessment states that it is programmes that promote sustainability-minded collective action that are particularly important at regional scales, both to protect watersheds beyond city jurisdiction and to ensure the connectivity of ecosystems and habitat (through green-belts and ecological / biodiversity corridors). Emphasising yet again that the involvement of a diversity of stakeholders, including citizens from different socio-economic strata, politicians, local government officers, scientists and educators, enables the long-term success of nature-based solutions.

An initiative in Medellin, Colombia provides an inspiring example of how climate mitigation and adaptation through nature-based solutions can offer a wide range of development benefits to enhance city-dwellers’ wellbeing. Medellin was facing the threat of rising urban temperatures, driven by climate change. The city’s response brings people together, planting vegetation to create a better environment in 30 ‘Green Corridors’ that criss-cross the city. The Green Corridors project shades cyclists and pedestrians, cools built up areas and cleans the air along busy roads. It has also been designed in such a way as to enhance people’s sense of security and reduce the risks of drug-related crime.

This is just one of the many city-led, nature-based solutions to climate change and development that CitieswithNature, the new partnership initiative founded by ICLEI, IUCN and The Nature Conservancy highlights, shares and promotes. The initiative is growing a network and community of practice around urban nature and nature-based solutions, through which cities, researchers, practitioners, communities, and individuals can connect, learn, share and inspire each other towards collective local action for biodiversity. Follow CitiesWithNature on twitter to see many more inspirational examples of this burgeoning area of practice and practice-led and evidence-based research.

For more information:

Image: Copyright Ashden – Medellin, Colombia

[1] Section A1 of the Summary for Policy Makers.

[2] Section A1.2.

[3] Section A2.3.

[4] in Chapter 8 on Urban Areas.

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