Nature provides many benefits essential for the flourishing of human well-being and life. These benefits, more commonly termed ecosystem services, include the provision of food, water and shelter, the purification of water and soil, and protection against natural disasters such as flooding, fires and storms. A less obvious benefit is the regulation of our climate through carbon sequestration. Just as forests, grasslands and mangroves provide shelter, food and flood protection, they also provide essential climate change mitigation services by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Awareness of the multiple benefits we derive from nature has prompted interest in nature-based solutions (NBSs) to societal challenges. More specifically, nature-based climate solutions (NCSs) refer to climate actions and policies that draw on nature rather than technology and include the protection of forests and grasslands and afforestation activities. Research in NCSs has grown faster than nature-based solutions for other challenges, such as natural hazards, water pollution or human well-being. Estimates suggest that NCSs have the potential to achieve 37% of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions required to limit global warming to within 2°C from baseline levels.
Yet the climate benefits from NCSs are not necessarily a given. The surge of afforestation activities within NCSs risks undervaluing other essential ecosystem services, with particular trade-offs for biodiversity. The current narrow focus on carbon sequestration may compromise long-term carbon storage, human adaptation and efforts to preserve biodiversity. Put more plainly, simply planting lots of trees without consideration for location or species could reduce the potential to protect against flooding, fires, or the safeguarding of biodiversity.
A report by the Smart Prosperity Institute argues that today’s focus on NCSs risks ignoring these other benefits the land can provide. The authors highlight various policy tools for both advancing NCSs and protecting (and even improving) biodiversity. These include direct public funding, carbon offsets, regulations and pricing mechanisms. While the report focuses on the Canadian context, many of its conclusions are applicable globally.