Fight climate change with nature-based solutions, and other vague terms

Last week, at United Nations climate conference In Egypt, the Biden administration made what was supposed to be a big deal Advertising: America is pushing its best in nature-based solutions to combat climate change, at a cost of over $25 billion.

The ad drew little attention. Most of the mainstream media didn’t cover it, other than that Fox News. Even some of the climate experts I spoke to didn’t see it.

This is probably because the phrase “nature-based solutions” is ambiguous and no one really knows what it means. Is vinegar a natural cleaning solution? One researcher joked me.

Plus, Biden’s own ad didn’t detail exactly how the billions would be spent.

From left to right, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a tree planting event on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting on November 16, 2022 in Bali, Indonesia.
Alex Brandon/AP

This points to a perennial problem with environmental politics: it is full of vague terms that, while trying to encompass everything, end up meaning nothing. It’s not just nature-based solutions but terms like ‘regenerative’, ‘climate smart’, ‘nature positive’, ‘resilience’ and ‘green’.

These terms sound inspiring and often point to important action – and it’s good that governments are talking about climate policies at all. But they don’t usually have universally agreed upon definitions, and as a result, the public (and even some experts) don’t understand what they mean.

This also makes them vulnerable to exploitation by companies that want to be on the forefront of climate action, according to Molly Anderson, a professor of food studies at Middlebury College. “The vagueness makes the terms very open to greenwashing,” Anderson said, referring to marketing that misleads the public into thinking something is more environmentally friendly than it is. “A lot of it is just branding.”

Clear definitions are important, especially as countries and companies are forced to curb or reverse their impact on ecosystems and climate. Experts say it’s hard to hold them accountable if you don’t know what they’re doing.

“If we are trying to say that the world should do things differently from the status quo to achieve climate goals, or nature goals, or social and economic development goals, we need to be really clear about what we are proposing or promoting,” said Richard Witt, food researcher. at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a DC-based think tank.

So, let’s get clear: what do these buzzwords mean, how are they exploited, and what should we use instead?

Nature-based solutions, loosely defined

Nature-based solutions refer to different ways of addressing a particular human challenge by protecting, restoring or better managing nature. Does this help you understand it? If not, we have something in common.

First, what is nature? In this context, it usually refers to ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, or coral reefs, which provide various benefits, such as water filtration and flood control, that scientists often refer to as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are usually synonymous with “benefits”.

What about the challenge? Most commonly, nature-based solutions emerge in the context of climate change and its symptoms, such as intensifying heat waves and storms. Therefore, they target different ways to reduce emissions, cool landscapes, or protect coastlines using plants or animals.

This could include protecting old trees that store huge amounts of carbon, Reef restorationwhich can Help control floods during hurricanes, or help farmers retain more of the carbon trapped in their soils. It could also include bringing back beavers, and they Heroes during a heat wave.

President Joe Biden speaks at the United Nations climate conference known as COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt on November 11, 2022.
Alex Brandon/AP

In the past decade, nature-based solutions have become an essential part of corporate and government climate strategies. (The oil and agricultural industries, which are closely associated with environmental destruction, often tout their endorsement of nature-based strategies.) 2020 analysis It found that nearly two-thirds of the countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement included nature-based targets in their adaptation and mitigation strategies.

This brings us to last week’s Biden announcement. At COP 27, his administration released a “roadmap” for putting nature-based solutions at the center of US climate policy. It includes five recommendations for federal agencies, from increasing funding to developing new policies, to support nature-based solutions. At the same time, the roadmap is very technical and ambiguous.

Among other policies, the roadmap calls for government offices to “accelerate the authorization process for projects that use nature-based solutions.” It also encourages the government to incorporate nature-based solutions into federal buildings — of which there are more than 300,000. “Including nature-based features, such as green roofs, can increase the life of facilities and reduce operating costs,” the roadmap says.

To help, management Guide issued To current programs it considers nature-based: it runs the gamut from burns described in the Sierra Nevada to restoring oyster populations along the Louisiana coast. But since so many different activities qualify as nature-based solutions, it’s hard to know exactly how the $25 billion will be spent.

What left these terms

said Anderson of Middlebury, who co-authored Modern report He criticizes the use of terms such as nature-based solutions.

Some solutions based on nature do not work well. Large tree planting campaigns, for example, are often promoted by countries and companies as nature-based solutions, but in many cases they failedor even harm local communities. Again, this is why details matter.

“Any rubbish can be described as nature-based nowadays,” said Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for NGO ActionAid International. Carbon Brief. “The term is so vague that I might as well cut down a tree, reduce it to a stick, wave it at the moon and call it a nature-based solution.”

Overhead view of rows of young trees in various shades of green.

Tree nursery in Imores, Brazil.
Christian Ender/Getty Images

Many “carbon offsets” are another set of nature-based solutions that don’t always end up protecting nature. These offsets are schemes in which companies attempt to offset their carbon footprint by protecting or restoring carbon-rich ecosystems.

A common criticism of compensation is that it allows business as usual, according to Modern report By the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (Anderson is a co-author). In other words, companies can continue polluting as long as they also protect some trees. (This is one of the reasons Some indigenous advocates decry the idea of ​​nature-based solutions.)

The simplicity of these terms can also obscure important trade-offs, WRI’s White said. Consider the term “regenerative”. It is often used by companies to refer to agricultural practices that restore farmland and make it more like a natural ecosystem. This looks great. But these actions sometimes reduce the amount of food a farm produces—and as we look toward 2050, the planet will have more mouths to feed, not fewer. So, in some cases, making farms more environmentally friendly may mean that countries will have to convert more natural habitats elsewhere to farmland.

The big question is how do you deal with climate change, stop biodiversity loss, And the Make sure everyone has enough to eat? Not with regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions alone, White said. We will also need to significantly reduce food waste, reduce animal meat intake, and make other changes to the food system. (WRI has an extension Helpful overview on how to meet the global demand for hunger while protecting biodiversity and the climate.)

Focus on what companies and governments are actually doing

Is there an alternative?

Molly Anderson argues that companies and governments should use terms with greater legitimacy, such as “agroecology”. In the world of food, agroecology—a form of sustainable farming rooted in indigenous knowledge—has a widely agreed-upon definition and set of principlesAnderson said. “Real food system solutions emerge through global, deliberative, and democratic processes, and agroecology is the solution that best meets these criteria,” Anderson He said.

However, agroecology is still a somewhat wonky term, and certainly not consumer-friendly.

Other experts suggest that we need to evaluate these programs on a case-by-case basis rather than trying to fit them into large, glamorous groups. Gene Hunter, an ecologist and resident director at the Hastings Natural History Preserve in Northern California, said beneficial projects to protect or restore ecosystems usually sell themselves and can inspire the public, no matter what you call them.

“Did you know that mangroves in intertidal zones can prevent storm surges in a way that can protect low-lying coastal development?” said the fisherman. “These things are legitimately interesting to people across the board without tagging all these kinds of buzzwords on them.”

Which brings us back to an important point: many nature-based solutions are worth celebrating. They help rebuild important ecosystems. And again, it’s important that governments and companies talk about it at all. But if a company or government says it promotes nature-based solutions or another loud climate phrase, it doesn’t say much on its own.

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