Momentum for nature-based solutions continues to grow despite disappointing UN climate talks

By Ben Simonds

December 20, 2019

As originally published on the Nature4Climate Newsroom webpage. Momentum for nature-based solutions continues to grow.

The United Nations climate negotiations, COP25, came to a close last week having failed to deliver meaningful progress, or reassure the world that the political will exists to tackle the climate emergency. This leaves much work to be done in the year ahead to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach.

However, nature-based solutions stood out as a bright spot amid the stalled negotiations. Following the wave of momentum at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit – and the surrounding Climate Week in New York – nature-based solutions featured prominently in the COP schedule, from the plenary halls, to a high-level Presidency event led by Chile and Spain, to a wide range of side events and rallies.

It was particularly encouraging to witness the active involvement of young people advocating for nature-based solutions at various events over the course of the two-week conference.

Overall, a growing number of governments, businesses and civil society groups are coming to understand the important role nature-based solutions can play as scalable and cost-effective responses to the climate threat, which are actionable now. At least in this sector, a new sense of optimism has emerged as people come to understand the potential of nature-based solutions to provide up to a third of the climate action needed by 2030 to keep the world in line with the Paris Agreement.

What nature-based solutions are, and what they aren’t

Given the increased attention nature-based solutions are receiving, it is important to clarify what they are and what they are not, in order to prevent them from being misappropriated for any effort that undermines ambitious climate action.

Nature-based solutions are a broad range of actions – centered on the protection, restoration and sustainable management of the world’s ecosystems – to help increase climate mitigation and adaptation around the globe, as well as support sustainable development and protect and promote biodiversity. They are a part of the broad sweep of multi-sectoral action needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and must be in addition to urgently reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Nature-based solutions are not an excuse for governments or companies to avoid or delay rapid reductions in carbon emissions. Nor are they a justification for projects that harm local communities or violate indigenous rights.

We must also recognise that the term “nature-based solutions” (or “natural climate solutions”), while offering a convenient short-hand, is broad and can be ambiguous. Many simply associate nature-based solutions with tree planting, which is not the case; in fact, in some instances, such as monoculture plantations, planting the wrong trees in the wrong places can undermine climate, biodiversity or sustainable development goals. We must be clear that nature-based solutions comprise a specific set of solutions and actions that support climate action, biodiversity and sustainable development.

2020 can be a super year for nature and people

Nature-based solutions are well placed to make a significant breakthrough in 2020. Not only do they offer one of the most powerful ways for countries to enhance their national climate commitments next year, they are also backed by increasing levels of political support.

Following the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, more than 30 countries – together with a broad array of other stakeholders – joined a call to action from China and New Zealand to increase support for nature-based solutions. The UN Secretary-General has since made nature-based solutions a priority for 2020.

Chile, which holds the COP Presidency until COP26, has launched a “Climate Ambition Alliance” of 73 countries all of which have signaled their intention to submit an enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) next year, including a focus on implementing concrete actions to strengthen the protection of forests and oceans. And, while they do not officially take over the Presidency until COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, the UK team has already begun designing a strategy for success in 2020, including nature-based solutions.

The European Commission recently unveiled a plan to eliminate the European Union’s contribution to climate change by 2050, which included commitments to improving the quality and health of European forests, as well as ensuring its trade policy minimises the risks to forests around the world.

And, finally, in the lead up to the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in China next year, there is a growing diplomatic effort calling for 30 percent of the planet to be managed for nature by 2030 with a range of supporting actions to mainstream diversity across government.

Urgent action needed in early months of 2020

There are a number of things that need to happen in the early months of 2020 to unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions.

First, if countries have not already begun to do so, they should enhance and mainstream the role of nature-based solutions in Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), as well as other climate policy related instruments such as national adaptation plans, long-term low emission development strategies. Ultimately, governments should include a quantified national mitigation goal for nature-based solutions in their NDCs or implementation plans that includes targets on protection of high-carbon ecosystems and sinks, avoided deforestation and degradation, sustainable forest management, and large-scale restoration efforts.

Some countries, such as Colombia, Kenya and Pakistan have sent very positive signals of their intentions, and others should follow their lead. For governments that are unsure how to carry out this work, some very helpful guidance has recently been released by the UNDP, Conservation International, and World Resources Institute.

Second, despite countries’ failure to reach a deal on the rules surrounding carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation, some countries have signaled their intention to begin forging bilateral agreements in lieu of formal guidance from the Paris regime. A group of countries, led by Costa Rica and Switzerland, have put forward an important set of principles to serve as interim guidelines. We applaud the push for forward momentum, and any countries seeking to move ahead of the stalled negotiations on this front must ensure they adopt the highest possible standards in terms of environmental and social safeguards.

We feel that is important that the United Kingdom, as the incoming president of COP26, lead a renewed effort next year to finalise the rules in such a way that they reduce emissions, increase ambition and spur public and private sector investment. Whether it’s through market or non-market-based approaches, it is critical that developing countries are re-assured that their own commitments and investments in protecting, restoring and sustainably managing natural ecosystems will be recognised, supported and rewarded by international partners.

Third, we need to see much more action to align investment and increase finance for nature-based solutions, sufficient to enable the achievement of the full climate change mitigation (10 Gt of GHG per year) and adaption potential.

Just as large investors are pulling investments out of fossil fuels, they must do the same for activities that drive deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere. We need leading government sovereign wealth funds to pull investments out of companies that are linked to deforestation and support those whose practices are consistent with climate, biodiversity and sustainable development goals. We need more investors to ask companies to disclose the deforestation footprint of their supply chain, and then act on that information. And we need countries to re-align their subsidies, tax incentives, and policies away from deforestation and other harmful activities to nature.

2020 can be a super year for nature-based solutions that kicks off a decade of ecological restoration and climate action. But urgent work lies ahead if we are to seize the opportunity before us.

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