Saturday, July 20, 2024
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For a healthier planet

Hakim Hayat

For the past 50 years, April 22 has been observed as Earth Day to promote awareness of the health of our planet. Many experts view the three central challenges of the planetary crisis – mitigating and adapting to climate change, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring human well-being – as the defining issue of the decade.

A major part of the answer to tackle them lies in addressing these interdependent challenges together. Indeed, the ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledges the interdependencies of the 17 environmental, economic, and social objectives and implements actions that promote synergies among them.

Despite the importance of considering synergies and trade-offs, according to a recent Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) study, many of the SDG goals are unlikely to be met by 2030 in several Asian countries. In particular, the failure to stabilise and adapt to climate change (SDG 13), protect biodiversity (SDG 15) and build partnerships (SDG 17) are deeply interwoven and driven by the same set of economic drivers, but treated separately.

Against this backdrop, the COP26 climate summit emphasised nature-based solutions as an integrated plan for people, government, and businesses to work closely alongside nature to avert a planetary catastrophe.

Director of Research Strategy and Innovation at ERIA Venkatachalam Anbumozhi in an op-ed sent to the Bulletin said that while there is emerging consensus around nature-based solutions, the overarching concept encompasses a wide range of approaches and actions that involve the ecosystem, which addresses climate and biodiversity challenges while also benefitting human well-being.

In terms of climate change, he said that this emphasis implies working with nature’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

“This includes sustainable land-use practices and the management of forests that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. It can also entail transformative actions in major sectors such as agriculture, livestock, land, water, and waste management to ensure the protection of the planet,” he said.

Venkatachalam explained that nature-based solutions do not only help mitigate climate change by expanding natural carbon sinks, but also enhance biodiversity, provide food and water, help clean the air and sustain other resources, as well as provide job opportunities, while also protecting local communities against natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, and droughts.

Some estimates state that nature-based solutions have the potential to supply up to 40 per cent of global climate change mitigation needs.

Moreover, he said that nature-based solutions meet the cross-cutting goals of the key multilateral environmental agreements and conventions such as biological diversity, desertification, and forest conservation.

Across the Asia-Pacific, governments, communities, and the private sector are keenly adopting nature-based solutions approaches, with most incorporating this approach in their national climate plans.

Some examples include Indonesia’s afforestation programme, which aims to restore about 600,000 hectares of forest and create thousands of jobs; Thailand’s response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by rehabilitating vast areas of mangrove swamps; and the Philippines campaign to plant one million trees in fragile watersheds.

However, Venkatachalam said that to make nature-based solutions truly successful in tackling the triple planetary crisis, there are several issues that the global community must address with new thinking

One key challenge, he explained, is the lack of an agreed framework or standards as to what constitutes an effective nature-based solution.

“There are several misunderstandings that have led to applications of nature-based solutions that cause harm to biodiversity, well-being of communities and threaten to erode public trust in the approach. Examples include mass reforestation of single-species or non-native species, illegal land acquisition in marginal areas for reforestation, and curtailing of rights of Indigenous peoples in the new watershed conservation projects,” he said.

Another major challenge with the application of nature-based solutions, he said, comes in identifying appropriate indicators for measuring the socio-ecological impacts of identified interventions.

“For example, measuring the effectiveness of climate change adaptation measures such as flood control is often influenced by many interacting, context-specific factors that fluctuate over time. There is evidence that show nature-based solutions such as disaster risk reduction along coasts and river catchments can be more cost-effective than engineered alternatives.

The conservation of high-carbon ecosystems – such as peatlands, wetlands, rangelands, mangroves, forests and farming and animal raring practices – also delivers the largest and most timely climate benefits.”

Nevertheless, he said that such nature-based solutions should not support or encourage carbon offsetting by polluting industries, to justify their continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

“A strong assessment framework, metrics and standards must be developed to guard against the misuse of nature-based solutions and to ensure realising effective economic benefits at local level.”

He added that there is a massive financing gap to be filled in realising the full benefits of nature-based solutions – funding for implementation comes from public and private sectors, bilateral and multilateral organisations, and national and international funds.

“One estimate shows that that if our planet is to meet targets for climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation, it needs to close a USD4.1 trillion financing gap, requiring quadrupling investments in nature-based solutions over the next 30 years,” he said.

“Currently, climate finance for nature-based solutions such as community forestry projects is mainly provided through payments for ecosystem services programmes, including carbon credits.

“However, raising the necessary finance for nature-based solutions is complex as many of the benefits cannot be capitalised by any single organisation. They also often create many financial externalities that impact different investors groups, resulting in problems of ownership.”

According to statistics, of the estimated current flow of USD130 billion per year directed towards nature-based solutions globally, only 14 per cent is from the private sector.

Venkatachalam is of the view that the lack of private sector funding is partly related to the long time-frame for returns on investments.

“Public funding thus has a crucial role to play in leveraging increased private funding by de-risking investments in nature-based solutions. Innovative financing mechanisms such as green bonds, credit swaps, debt-for-nature swaps, and carbon markets are also being actively explored but in different scope and scale.”

He suggested that nature-based solutions need an effective governance system, as the implementation of them often involve multiple actors over a range of jurisdictional boundaries.

“For example, effective management of flood control using vegetative buffers in urban areas requires joint decision-making across different local, regional, and national governments and among multiple ministries.

“Therefore, to be successful, governance of nature-based solutions requires active cooperation and coordinated action between stakeholders, strong institutions, and a well-established planning process to ensure benefits are maximised and evenly distributed.”

Thus, he said that nature-based solutions which are gaining traction in global policy and business discourse can play a key role in enabling sustainable development within planetary boundaries.

“But their benefits will not be realised unless they are implemented within a system thinking framework that accounts for multiple challenges, experimentation, and innovations. As nations revise their climate, biodiversity and COVID-19 recovery policies, elucidation of nature-based solutions should be an urgent priority to restore planetary health.”