Harnessing ecosystems to benefit society: IUCN members and UN conventions promote nature-based solutions

Using ecosystems to solve societal problems is the way forward, say IUCN members and United Nations representatives at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawai’i, this week.

IUCN Congress participants are mobilising around the concept of nature-based solutions (NbS). These are actions that protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems to help effectively and adaptively address societal challenges (e.g. climate change, food and water security, natural disasters), while simultaneously increasing human well-being and providing biodiversity benefits.

This week, IUCN members adopted a resolution that will guide future IUCN work focused on NbS – activities that make up one third of IUCN’s proposed programme. Further discussion took place at a high-level panel featuring speakers from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank, and more.

The NbS concept has emerged in the past decade as international organisations search for ways to use natural ecosystems to address climate change effects – rather than relying on conventional solutions (e.g. infrastructure). These solutions have the further goals of improving sustainable livelihoods and protecting biodiversity while also addressing key global targets.

Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary for the CBD and a key speaker at Sunday’s high-level dialogue, explained that “Nature-based solutions can help to address the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 as well as objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the SDGs through ecosystems services for the well-being of all life on this planet and society. Improved protected areas management acts as a nature-based solution to address the challenges derived from biodiversity loss, desertification and climate change while supporting the livelihoods of local communities.”

During an interview at IUCN Congress, Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, further explained, “The Paris Agreement established a very clear path towards a low-carbon future. Countries have committed in a very significant way to do that. Implementing those commitments is not easy.” She goes on to describe that, in comparison to other solutions, many NbS options can be easily implemented. And promoting these easy solutions is essential to achieving the goal of keeping global temperature rise to below 2 degrees.

In a recent illustration of such benefits, the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency undertook NbS activities in Medmerry. They broke down flood defences and restored coastal wetland, reducing coastal flooding while providing protected habitat for birds and a recreational area for local inhabitants. Stewart Maginnis, IUCN’s Global Director for Nature-based Solutions, explains that “the coastal realignment in Medmerry perfectly illustrates how nature-based solutions principles come together to deliver tangible, cost-effective benefits for society and nature.”

Other examples come from urban environments, watersheds, and restoration efforts, showing how NbS are employed through protected areas to avoid disaster, how they contribute to food security, and how individuals can use NbS on their own lands.

To help put these solutions to work, experts from IUCN, including the Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) and the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), have just released a new report that defines NbS and provides a set of general principles for NbS interventions. This includes approaches on restoration, protection, natural and green infrastructure, management and single issues, such as climate change adaptation or disaster-risk reduction.

Ángela Andrade, Deputy Chair of CEM, expressed her support for this new release, further linking NbS to addressing climate change: “Nature-based solutions are of major importance for the sustainable development of the planet. Based on ecosystems and the services they provide, they can address some of the most important societal challenges, the major one being climate change. They can support the achievement of several SDGs and result in benefits for both nature and society.”

Although all early evidence from NbS pilots across the globe demonstrates that well-managed and restored ecosystems can deliver robust solutions to pressing societal challenges, the real potential will only be realised when we move from pilots to scaled-up interventions. According to Maginnis, for this to happen, “NbS must be mainstreamed into sectoral policies and programs with full involvement of the government, private sector and local communities.” The focus on NbS at IUCN Congress this week was an important first step toward this broader adoption.

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