Understanding Nature-Based Solutions

As it stands, there’s no silver bullet to fighting climate change. Governments across the globe must quickly and comprehensively move to utilize a multitude of climate mitigation and adaptation approaches to combat the climate crisis.

One of these approaches, called “nature-based solutions” (NBS) harness the power of nature and existing ecosystems to better store atmospheric carbon and increase the resilience of human communities and wildlife populations to the impacts of climate-related natural hazards. These types of climate solutions yield a high return on investment yet they’re most successful when they incorporate local collaboration and Indigenous knowledge.

Why This Matters: The most sophisticated data estimates that in the United States, a range of nature-based solutions has the potential to sequester 1.2 petagrams of CO2/year, which represents about 21% of the nation’s current net annual emissions.

What’s more, is that NBS bring good jobs to local communities. Studies have shown that ecosystem restoration jobs can support up to 39 jobs per million dollars invested, compared with only 5 jobs supported per million invested in the oil and gas industry.

Leading climate experts have made it clear that fighting the climate crisis and the loss of nature must be addressed in tandem. NBS provide a clear path to accomplish both goals.

What Do NBS Look Like? Human beings simply cannot survive without nature and healthy ecosystems. Yet, we’re destroying and exploiting nature at an unprecedented scale. We know that the conversion of untouched ecosystems for human development and agriculture are the biggest drivers of this loss and therein lie the solutions to addressing the dual crises of extinction and climate change.

According to the World Resources Institute, NBS can look like (but are not limited to):

  • Protecting, managing, and restoring forests
  • Adopting “regenerative” approaches to agriculture
  • Building artificial wetlands within cities to reduce flooding
  • Managing watersheds to provide clean water
  • Restoring mangroves to mitigate storm damage

Dividends on Dividends: Restoring nature to sequester carbon and provide protection from climate threats creates a multiplier effect of benefits to people and planet. According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, NBS offer a triple dividend of benefits:

  • Economic gains, from immediate jobs restoring and protecting nature, to long-term economic growth associated with increasing food and water security, business productivity, and tourism and recreation value.
  • Avoided losses from protecting communities and infrastructure from floods, storms, and heatwaves, saving many countries billions of dollars each year.
  • Social and environmental benefits, from cleaner air that improves human health and mitigates climate change, to more habitat for endangered species.

Past as Prologue: Incorporating nature-based solutions into infrastructure and climate legislation is key to funding these projects for the long term. It shouldn’t take a lot of convincing for lawmakers (of either party) to see the benefits of such types of public investment, we even have the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to serve as a blueprint. 

For instance, ARRA funds spent on coastal restoration generated an additional 60 cents in the local economy for every dollar invested while supporting between 14 and 33 jobs per million dollars invested, depending on the type of coastal restoration. The rebuilt fisheries and increased local tourism resulting from these projects led to immediate job benefits, and can continue to spur job growth and benefit coastal economies for the long term.

Further, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received $167 million from ARRA to fund shovel-ready projects that restore habitats and stimulate economic growth.

  • Per million dollars spent, the projects supported 15 jobs on average, or 30 jobs on average for labor-intensive restoration such as invasive algae removal or building oyster reefs.
  • In total, ARRA supported 2,280 jobs, added $147.3 million in new or expanded economic activity nationwide, and restored over 25,000 acres of habitat.
  • The projects now generate $260.5 million annually

Going Forward: We understand the benefits of investing in ecosystem restoration and fortification much more than we did in 2009. As a nation, we must ensure that going forward NBS exists to serve all people, not just those who live in neighborhoods with political clout. 

Urban tree planting has to extend to all communities, rich and poor. Forest restoration must be done in tandem with Indigenous people and their ecological expertise. And the jobs (and job training) provided by NBS projects have to be accessible to people across the socio-economic spectrum. 

The Bottom Line: As the National Wildlife Federation wrote in its policy platform: with a suggested U.S. carbon removal target of 2 gigatons annually, natural solutions alone will be insufficient. Technological approaches to carbon removal are also necessary.

And this is what we must remember, it will take a multitude of solutions to truly decarbonize our economy and reach the fastest, fairest path to net-zero by mid-century.


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