Dispatches from the Nature-Based Solutions Conference
by: Emily Romano | August 25, 2022
Site visit by ClimeCo at a reforestation project in Louisiana
Nature-based solutions (NBS) are an important part of the work we do at ClimeCo, and they are a growing sector of carbon markets. NBS are defined as actions that restore, manage, and protect natural habitats for societal benefit, including mitigation and adaptation to the effects of climate change. These activities, such as reforestation, peatland rewetting, or grassland management, have received extensive media coverage in recent years and months as they play an increasingly important role in many corporate and national climate plans. Successful NBS projects have the potential to achieve a trifecta of climate, community, and biodiversity benefits, while poorly designed projects are rightfully criticized as a step backward for climate goals, human rights, and ecosystem health.
With this context in mind, I attended the Nature-based Solutions Conference in Oxford, UK, in July 2022, hosted by researchers at the Nature-based Solutions Initiative. Held in the beautiful Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the conference attracted a wide range of researchers, policymakers, activists, NGO members, and practitioners. Sessions addressed topics such as the global status and criticisms of NBS, inclusive project governance and narratives, improved biodiversity outcomes, the economics of NBS, and applications for urban environments.
I learned a lot from the speakers, whose presentations addressed the conference’s central question: “How can we ensure that NBS support thriving human and ecological communities?” In this blog, I summarize and share the key messages I took home from this conference.
Bodleian Library, Oxford University
Concern for Low-Quality NBS
With careful planning and consideration, NBS projects can provide powerful, sustainable, and cost-effective benefits to their host communities. Unfortunately, a number of low-quality NBS projects around the world have failed in recent decades. These failures are almost always due to protocols with inadequate provisions for permanence and additionality or a lack of robust safeguards of human rights and biodiversity.
The conference explored numerous concerns surrounding low-quality NBS, primarily those voiced by Indigenous and local communities regarding projects that have caused and perpetuated human rights abuses. These include land tenure injustice, displacement of people and livelihoods, and denial of community access to natural resources. This sort of project is often characterized by a top-down design without the active participation of the local community, prioritization of western value systems, and a lack of transparency or long-term monitoring requirements. Low-quality projects often result in ecosystem failures due to inappropriate species selection or project location or the establishment of monoculture plantations without regard for local biodiversity.
An additional concern voiced at the conference was that NBS not be used in greenwashing schemes by polluters to replace decarbonization efforts. While ecosystems play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, they are not capable of compensating for delayed emissions reductions in other sectors. Speakers also highlighted the moral hazard of entities from the Global North who might seek to export the responsibility and the work of decarbonization to the Global South.
These concerns are critically important for improving NBS project outcomes. The conference’s primary focus was on how to address these concerns and included many examples of current best practices from around the world.
Tradeoffs, Inclusive Project Design and Governance, and Narratives
While many NBS projects generate desirable co-benefits or “win-win” results for society and biodiversity, projects may also generate tradeoffs that create tension between competing project goals. For example, biophysical tradeoffs might occur if a project prioritizes one ecosystem service at the expense of another. Social tradeoffs might occur between stakeholders with different cultural or spiritual valuations of nature or between those with scientific knowledge and those with Indigenous knowledge. Project developers must acknowledge and mitigate these tradeoffs in partnership with local stakeholders to account for the full range of project impacts.
One strong message from the conference was the critical role that Indigenous and local community members must play in all stages of NBS projects and the importance of free, prior, and informed consent. Numerous speakers pointed out that many Indigenous groups have traditionally implemented successful NBS within their own communities, and their knowledge can fill critical gaps in scientific understanding. The inclusion of these groups from the design to the implementation to the monitoring stage of a project is not only a basic indicator of respect but can also tangibly improve project outcomes.
Indigenous and community leaders from numerous countries, including Zambia, China, Tanzania, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, presented case studies illustrating successful NBS outcomes in their communities. These presentations called for projects to distribute benefits equitably among community members, ensure a living wage, and create sources of long-term finance controlled by the local community. Finally, the speakers emphasized the critical importance of land tenure for Indigenous peoples.
ClimeCo meeting indigenous workers at a mangrove reforestation project in Indonesia
How to Prioritize and Adequately Represent Biodiversity
Another conference theme was the need for better metrics of biodiversity, so that progress can be adequately represented in project designs and monitoring plans. Speakers highlighted several scientific and technological advances, such as ecosystem DNA and high-resolution carbon mapping tools, which would facilitate project area prioritization and robust biodiversity assessment if implemented at scale.
However, some speakers quickly pointed out that “technology is not the solution. We are the solution.” In this vein, multiple speakers recommended that biodiversity monitoring plans utilize community monitoring approaches, including input from local and Indigenous groups regarding biodiversity metric selection.
Mangrove nursery managed and developed by the local community near the reforestation site
Creating High-Quality NBS
The conference delivered a crystal-clear message that projects that do not include robust provisions for human rights and biodiversity do not fall under the umbrella of the NBS term.
To avoid the pitfalls of low-quality projects, reputable carbon offset registries have developed meaningful standards for additionality and permanence and protocols that include protections for human rights and biodiversity. The most important feature of these protocols is that registries update them when a loophole is identified. Although these updates require months or even years to go into effect, this process allows registries to enforce ever-evolving concepts of “best practice.” For this reason, carbon offsets generated using the protocols of reputable registries, such as the Climate Action Reserve, Verra, the American Carbon Registry, and Gold Standard, are categorically distinct from low-quality offsets.
Regardless of protocol requirements, project developers are responsible for designing projects that adhere to best practices and meaningfully address the concerns of Indigenous and local stakeholders. Within the voluntary carbon market, project developers and carbon credit end-users must be able to recognize the indicators of a high-quality project and must be selective in the projects they choose to support.
ClimeCo’s NBS Approach
As offset project developers, the ClimeCo team always listens for new perspectives on best practices. We believe that NBS projects have enormous potential when they are designed carefully to empower and give voice to local communities. As sustainability advisors, we also feel a keen responsibility to help clients decarbonize wherever possible. Our ESG Advisory team provides many services essential to clients at any stage of their decarbonization journey. We encourage the use of offsets to address emission sources that are difficult or impossible to abate as a part of a larger decarbonization plan.
Most importantly, we understand there is no one-size-fits-all approach to NBS project development. We are grateful for each opportunity to earn a community’s trust and seek partners who share our accountability and responsible stewardship values.
ClimeCo’s Dr. Scott Subler observing freshly planted Bald Cypress saplings
I left the conference inspired by the incredible work being done worldwide to improve the implementation of NBS. ClimeCo will continue to listen and apply the guidance and feedback of the global NBS community, and I cannot wait to see the good our projects can do. ClimeCo is committed to informing you of new information discovered as we continue to explore in-depth NBS concerns. We welcome comments or questions surrounding this topic.
Anyone interested in watching conference sessions can access recordings and PDFs of presentations on the conference website (I recommend Session 4 and Session 9A). For those curious to see examples of high-quality projects, the Nature-based Solutions Initiative’s organizers directed us to their Case Study Platform, a map-based tool with over 100 examples of projects from around the world that meet the researchers’ quality standards.
About the Author
Emily Romano is a Project Manager at ClimeCo based in San Francisco. Within Project Development, she applies a background in climate, ecosystem, and soil science to her work managing NBS projects. She holds a Master of Science in Environmental Science and Policy from Northern Arizona University and a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Syracuse University.