Nature-Based Solutions Can Make Up For Lost Time On Climate Change

Panoramic view of Ras al Khaimah over mangrove forest in the UAE United Arab Emirates aerial

By Sally Yozell and Jack W. Stuart

The U.S. is re-entering international climate change diplomacy at a critical moment. After a year of record-setting climate events, President Biden has placed climate change on the top of his agenda. He has named experienced climate leaders to key White House positions, rejoined the Paris agreement, and enacted a raft of executive orders focused on combatting the climate crisis across the United States and around the world.

In addition to land-based solutions, the ocean and coastal ecosystems play a key role in reducing emissions and building resilience to climate impacts that we are already facing. As the U.S. moves to update its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and restore global leadership on environmental issues, it should lead and promote and implement coastal resilience and nature-based solutions to combat the climate crisis, safeguard ecosystems, and build a more resilient future.

Vulnerable to sea-level rise, warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and flooding, many coastlines are becoming uninhabitable as climate conditions worsen. This is exacerbated by a barrage of extreme storms, as witnessed this year in the Gulf Coast, Bangladesh, Central America, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). As the impacts of climate change worsen, an estimated 630 million people could be displaced by the end of this century, made worse by economic losses of one trillion dollars each year by 2050.

Coastal ecosystems like mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, and seagrasses play a critical role in protecting coastal communities from the impacts of climate change. Globally, studies have shown mangroves protect economic activity worth $65 billion annually and coral reefs cut the costs of all flood-related damages in half. Ecosystems also support the blue economy, accounting for $373 billion in the U.S. annually and provide economic and food security to over three billion people worldwide. Further, coastal ecosystems are effective (blue) carbon sinks, storing carbon at a rate ten times greater than tropical forests.

Despite these benefits, coastal ecosystems are threatened by climate change and land-based stressors, including poor waste management, pollution, and inadequate coastal planning. These impacts are particularly acute in and around coastal cities in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and SIDS, which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and struggle to access the investment needed to conserve these ecosystems and build resilience.

Despite the pandemic, major carbon-emitting nations have made important climate pledges in the last year. Aggressive targets by the EU and China, plus President Biden’s new Executive Orders and previous campaign pledges, have led to hopes that the Paris goal of 2°C might be within reach.

These pledges are welcome progress, particularly as the Biden administration provides details on how it will meet its targets. As all nations look to submit updated climate targets in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November 2021, nature-based solutions is one area that offers promising returns, but remain vastly underutilized. Of 167 NDCs submitted under the Paris Agreement, just 70 include nature-based adaptation actions. With its renewed focus, the U.S. has an opportunity to play a key role in reversing this trend.

At home, the U.S. can fully incorporate coastal resilience and nature-based solutions into its NDC. This means including the value of carbon storage from mangroves, wetlands, and seagrasses into national carbon accounting, and expanding nature-based defenses – such as dunes and mangroves – to protect coastal communities.

Internationally, the U.S. State Department, with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other agencies, should develop new initiatives to safeguard coastal resilience worldwide, scaling-up U.S. support for restoring marine ecosystems and providing high-profile technical support to partner countries.

As countries develop their second round of NDCs, it is vital for the U.S. to advocate for the full inclusion of blue carbon sinks into carbon accounting practices. For coastal adaptation, the U.S. should pledge to examine natural marine infrastructure options as part of infrastructure development and financing programs. As environmental conditions worsen, hardened shorelines, including sea-walls and revetments, often can’t withstand the harsh elements. Nature-based solutions are cost-effective, safeguard coastal habitats and the communities who depend on them, and can adapt to future climate threats.

The many benefits of ecosystems, from climate mitigation to safeguarding economic and food security through protecting coastal communities and sustaining fisheries, are critical for incentivizing the expansion of these natural services. To be successful, we also need renewed financial incentives for the restoration, conservation, and expansion of global coastal ecosystem services. One such option is payment for ecosystem services, which provides direct financial support for the preservation of threatened coastal ecosystems. Another solution would be zero interest funds, which developing countries could use to expand successful marine ecosystem conservation efforts.

All of these efforts should be accompanied by larger initiatives to reinvigorate multilateral institutions to increase and channel funding into ecosystem services. The U.S. could lead other developed countries to re-capitalize the Green Climate Fund, which has played a critical role in channeling assistance to highly vulnerable LDCs and SIDS since 2014.

Sustainable ecosystems are critical to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The services they provide form the basis of SDG goal 14 (Life Below Water), are essential for goal 13 (Climate Action), and underpin the success of all other objectives. Due to the interconnected threats and benefits, ecosystems must be integrated into planning across the land-seascape, as shown by the Climate and Ocean Risk Vulnerability Index. By promoting nature-based solutions both at home and abroad, upscaling investment, and ensuring that dual benefits and best practices are shared across regions, the U.S. can lead the way in developing a nature-first global climate strategy.

Sally Yozell is a senior fellow and director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center which developed CORVI: The Climate and Ocean Risk Vulnerability Index. Jack W. Stuart is a research associate with the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center.

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