It’s time to reset our relationship with nature
Right now, there’s a lot of talk about nature-based solutions. There’s a sense that - although the idea of working with nature rather than against it is by no means new and has been practised by indigenous peoples for millennia - the time has come to treat nature with more respect if we are to overcome some of our greatest existential threats.
But what exactly are nature-based solutions (NbS)? Until recently, there was no universally accepted definition of NbS - which, confusingly, are also sometimes known as ecosystem-based adaptation, natural climate solutions, nature-based infrastructure or assisted natural regeneration.
In March 2022, however, United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted an agreed definition of NbS acknowledging the important role they play in the global response to climate change and its social, economic and environmental effects. The resolution, drafted by the EU, recognises the “importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, as well as the interdependencies between biodiversity loss, climate change and human wellbeing.”
“We have to understand NbS as a paradigm shift in the way people see and work with nature,” says Diego Portugal, Co-lead of the IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM). “It’s a philosophical question about humans’ relationship with nature. When we talk about NbS, it’s about working side by side with nature.”
This fusion of philosophy, science and economics is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of NbS - the sense that we humans have an opportunity not only to reset our relationship with nature but to re-evaluate our place in the world. “How do we settle once and for all our conflicted and confrontational relationship with nature?” asks Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CEO of the Global Environmental Facility and former Environment Minister of Costa Rica.
“We humans have, over the past two centuries, built a sandcastle of prosperity and progress, thinking that this sandcastle is solid. But now we understand how fragile and how vulnerable we are. I grew up as a conservationist, but my children will grow up as ecological restorationists.”
“We have a very anthropocentric view of how nature should work for humans,” agrees Geraldo Carreiro, Team Leader at EU Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) Support Facility. “It’s interesting that we know climate change is caused by humans, and now humans are looking to nature for solutions to the very problems we created in the first place. It’s ironic that we are asking nature – which we have done so much to destroy – to help us solve problems we created for ourselves.”
“NbS is like working with nature instead of trying to impose our solutions on nature as we did in the past,” he adds. “It uses features that already exist in nature and that nature does really well over time, such as buffering waves, preventing erosion, harmonising pressures and temperatures and water levels, filtering pollutants, cleaning water and air, or regenerating soil. We need to recognise and value these features of nature, otherwise we won’t be able to sustain the planet.”
As Carla Montesi, Director for the European Green Deal within the Directorate General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA), told an EU GCCA+ COP26 side event, “NbS should be a priority for us all. If we ensure healthy ecosystem services, we are also tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
“We need to work with nature more than against it. We have the solutions in our hands, and integrated NbS are clearly a tool to enable us to act. It’s clear we now need to scale up NbS. It’s not just about words of commitment, it’s about action.”
The EU GCCA+ has been implementing hundreds of NbS projects since 2007, ranging from mangrove and coral reef restoration to agro-forestry and sustainable farming.