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Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for mitigating climate change – Times of India

Global Climate Change Scenario

Multilateral accords, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, recognize the need to mitigate climate change (UNFCCC). However, we are collectively on track to miss the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, as well as CBD biodiversity targets. Human activities have so far resulted in a nearly 1.1°C rise in global mean temperature compared to 1850–1900 levels. If we continue on our current path, the 1.5°C limit will most likely be breached within the next 20 years. If the worst effects of climate change are to be averted, immediate and far-reaching action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove CO2 from the atmosphere is required. According to the 2020 Emissions Gap Report, countries must increase their mitigation aspirations “threefold to get on track to a 2°C objective, and more than fivefold to get on track to the 1.5°C goal”.

Ecosystems and Climate Mitigation Potential

Ecosystems as varied as forests, grasslands, wetlands, grasslands, coastal & marine ecosystems (mangroves, seagrass meadows, kelp beds and coral reefs), and even urban green spaces, managed lands including tree plantations and agriculture farms when healthy acts as a carbon sink that absorbs a large amount of CO2 emissions. On the other hand, these ecosystems when the degrade as a result of anthropogenic pressure and/or changing climate becomes an active carbon source. To minimize emission release from ecosystems, action must be taken to keep existing ecosystems and the carbon they hold intact. This means halting nature loss and degradation, by eliminating deforestation from supply chains, and preventing loss and damage to other ecosystems. To enhance the uptake of carbon by these ecosystem, largescale ecosystem restorations are to be undertaken, at the earliest.

Ecosystem restoration is defined as a process of reversing the degradation of ecosystems, such as landscapes, lakes and oceans to regain their ecological functionality; in other words, to improve the productivity and capacity of ecosystems to meet the needs of society. Based on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates, ecosystem restoration could eliminate up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, making rehabilitating and restoring the natural environment a crucial strategy in curbing climate change. The potential to protect, restore and use ecosystems as tools to tackle climate change has gained increasing traction under the broad/overarching framework of NbS.

Nature based solutions (NbS)

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) definition, nature-based solutions for climate mitigation include actions (i) to protect natural ecosystems from loss and degradation (forests, grasslands, peatlands, mangroves, etc.); (ii) to restore ecosystems that have been degraded, and (iii) to sustainably manage working lands such as agriculture fields and managed forests. Nature-based solutions that are well-designed and implemented provide several benefits, allowing for synergies and reducing trade-offs in the pursuit of various global development goals as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals. Nature-based solutions can simultaneously address societal challenges, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, natural disasters, human health, food and water security, and biodiversity loss. 

NbS corresponds to management approaches that develop sustainable and multifunctional ecosystems, benefits and landscapes. The Nbs is an Umbrella Concept and include the following activities.

  1. Restoring and protection of natural forests, improving management of existing forests, and growing trees on degraded or agricultural land. As trees and other forest plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in living plants, dead organic matter and soils. Regrowing natural forest can sequester carbon at an estimated rate of 3.16-3.58 megatons of carbon per hectare per year.
  2. Restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems can sequester large quantities of carbon. Many coastal and marine habitats, including saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass meadows, are rich in carbon and have high rates of carbon sequestration, and on average they store carbon more rapidly (2 to 4 times) per unit area, and more reliably for longer periods of time, than terrestrial forests.
  3. Adoption of nature-based agriculture increase carbon sequestration potential of the farmlands and this include replacement of inorganic and synthetic fertilizers with organic fertilizers, reduced tillage and diversification of crop and non-crop species on farmland. Apart from sequestration of carbon, these practices have the additional benefits of enhancing pest control and pollination, and improving soil fertility and nutrient cycling.
  4. Restoring degraded peatlands; anoxic conditions in the peatland landscape prevent decomposition of organic matter, and lockup carbon up for millennia. Although peatlands cover just 3% of the Earth’s land surface, but they account for 21% of global soil organic carbon.
  5. Restoring and creating natural habitats within has great potential for improving the quality of life of city-dwellers, whilst also contributing to carbon sequestration. Urban NbS are diverse in form and includes green roofs and green walls, created wetlands, urban agriculture, street trees and parks – collectively often known as urban green and blue infrastructure.

NbS and Carbon Credits

Voluntary carbon trading markets are booming due to rising demand globally for carbon offsets generated from nature-based solutions (NbS) and is estimated to be scaled up to $50 billion in 2030 to help cap global warming at 1.5° Celsius. Since NbS sequester carbon, they are can be used to ‘offset’ emissions produced by other means. Carbon offsetting is a legitimate method for funding NbS, and it can play an important role on the path to net zero emissions. Over 600 companies have set voluntary targets of net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, many of them plan to achieve at least some emissions reductions with offset credits from agriculture, forestry, or land-use projects.

Under the voluntary carbon standards, robust and thoroughly reviewed scientific-backed quantification methodologies are available to calculate Green House Gas (GHG) emission reductions or sequestration potential to yield tradable carbon credits for all of the above-mentioned mitigation project activities. Carbon credits are measurable and verifiable reductions, removals, or avoided emission units from approved climate mitigation programmes. Before carbon credits are issued, these projects must satisfy a rigorous set of requirements and safeguards that must be verified by third-party auditors and reviewed by voluntary carbon standards.

Conclusion

To ensure that NbS are efficient at sequestering and storing carbon for the long term, they must be carefully designed to each specific context, informed by the best possible science and local and indigenous knowledge. This is also needed to ensure that NbS do not have negative social, ecological and biophysical side effects. Poorly implemented NbS have in the past led to land grabs, human rights abuses, biodiversity loss and water shortages. However, well-planned NbS can act as a positive force for nature and local people, whilst also mitigating climate change.

The United Nations estimates that the $9 trillion restoration of 350 million hectares of different landscapes and ecosystems by 2030 will enhance rural economies and remove an additional 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. To meet the restoration goal that the UN has set for this decade, $800 billion will be needed, a figure that, although it may seem very high, is equivalent to less than two years of fossil fuel subsidies. To achieve the maximum efficiency, NbS frameworks with consistent policy and incentives across all involved NbS scopes, stakeholders, and governance levels need to be established.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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