This event was hosted by TABLE on 31 October 2023 and took the format of a panel discussion with:
Dr Tara Garnett (director of TABLE);
Professor Nathalie Seddon (Nature-based Solutions Initiative, University of Oxford);
Kirtana Chandrasekaran (Friends of the Earth International);
Jutta Kill (World Rainforest Movement);
Roberto S. Waack (Arapyaú Institute, Associate Fellow of Chatham House).
“Nature-based Solutions” (NBS) – broadly defined as activities that harness the power of healthy ecosystems to tackle societal and environmental challenges, providing ongoing benefits for humans and biodiversity – have been gaining interest from policymakers, industry, and NGOs since the idea was introduced in the late 2000s. For some, the growing interest in NBS is a cause for celebration and a win for environmental concerns. For others, it's a dangerous concept – one which acts as a cover for corporate expansion of environmentally catastrophic fossil fuel projects – while adding nothing new to the positive ideas for social and environmental change already out there.
On 31st October, TABLE spoke with advocates and critics of the concept, hoping for a clearer understanding of the fault lines and common ground. First up, Nathalie Seddon (Professor of Biodiversity and Nature-based Solutions Initiative founder) who viewed the uptake of NBS as a largely positive step, that has allowed major international organisations to see that healthy local biodiversity is the key that “supports the flow of the many ways nature supports people.” But there are crucial boundaries to NBS that need to be made clear in practice. Any benefits from nature depend on “keeping fossil fuels in the ground”, added Seddon. “Offsetting does not work, and nature-based solutions must not be conflated with offsetting or forestry.”
While Seddon recognised that this theoretical ideal might not be working perfectly in practice, Jutta Kill (independent researcher and critic of NBS) and Kirtana Chandresakaran (Friends of the Earth International) questioned whether NBS was ever such a well-meaning idea in the first place. Kill responded that it’s important to look at who is using the concept, including major oil companies. In this context, NBS are “serving as an excuse to prolong fossil fuel extraction” and as an excuse for land grabs. Chandresakaran added that, at its core, NBS is being driven by the interests of the financial sector and being integrated directly with carbon and biodiversity offset markets.
Roberto Waack (Arapyaú Institute, Associate Fellow of Chatham House) shared the view that the driving organisations interested in NBS are the private sector and investors, and that NBS often manifests as greenwashing and another way for nature to be monetized rather than protected. But as a biologist who works with and for companies in beef production, recycle plastics, and forestry, he doesn’t view these problems as a reason not to work closely with companies on tackling their environmental impacts.
What were the commonalities and divergences as the conversation progressed?
There was a clear disagreement on the origins of the NBS concept. Seddon argued that the term “emerged in the world of biodiversity conservation and adaptation”, and that it had been recently co-opted by the fossil fuel industry. Kill took the view that there was never any co-option: NBS from the start had been linked with industry interests as a way of “relabelling” a collection of good and bad existing practices. While Seddon was keen to “double down” on what conservationists really mean by the term, Kill and Chandresakaran viewed the concept in its current form as unusable. As Chandresakaran put it, “the dangers far outweigh the benefits” of using a term that has created a “wild west” situation, offering a “massive catch-all to allow everybody to do whatever they want.” In this case, it’s better to stick with well-established terms for good practices grounded in nature, especially when they have a built in social and environmental justice angle, as is the case for agroecology.
Perhaps (a thought from TABLE here), the language of “solutions” is, to some, problematically apolitical. For them, “solutions” are the language of magic bullets, of techno-fixes – or in this case eco-fixes, and they slot too neatly into the current system. They don’t seek to transform it. For others, though, NBS can be a transformative concept, if transformative ideas are built into its definition – or, at a minimum, it can still have a role to play in a broader systematic approach to change.
And in fact, most of the panellists did see system change as essential. Seddon, Kill, and Chandresakaran all repeatedly advocated for it. On the question of engaging with the existing system as a pragmatic mechanism for change, Seddon and Waack both saw the benefits of working with private companies. Waack diverged from the other speakers, though, in terms of his views on how to deal with the intersection of nature and economics. He adopted a mainstream environmental economics approach, often referred to as taking account of “externalities”, meaning companies need to account for the harm they do to nature and pay damages for it.
Taking NBS out of the equation for a moment, there was a lot to agree on when it comes to the challenges we face and the actions we need to take. The speakers shared an observation of widespread greenwashing as a cover for destructive activities; agreed on the absolute need to decarbonise now and the culpability of the fossil fuel sector in obstructing this process; were critical of carbon offsetting practices; believed in the centrality of protecting the rights and lands of indigenous communities; and showed strong support for robust regulatory mechanisms to make all of this possible.
Event summarised by Hester van Hensbergen.
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Chausson, A., Turner, B, Seddon, D., Chabaneix, N., Girardin, C. A. J., Kapos, V., Key, I., Roe, D., Smith, A., Woroniecki, S. & Seddon, N. (2020). Mapping the effectiveness of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation. Global Change Biology, 26(11), 6134-6155,
Focus on the Global South. (2022). Press Conference: No to Nature Based Solutions!
Friends of the Earth International. (2023). Factsheets: ‘nature-based solutions’ and soil carbon farming. Friends of the Earth International.
Friends of the Earth International. (2022). The Nature of Business: Corporate influence over the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Global Biodiversity Framework. Friends of the Earth International.
Friends of the Earth International. (2022). Replanting Agricultural Biodiversity in the CBD. Friends of the Earth International.
Friends of the Earth International. (2021). Nature-based solutions: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Friends of the Earth International.
Friends of the Earth International. (2021). Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The deception of carbon markets and “net zero”.
Seddon, N., Smith, A., Smith, P., Key, I., Chausson, A., Girardin, C., House, J. Srivastava, S. & Turner, B. (2021). Getting the message right on nature-based solutions to climate change. Global Change Biology, 27(8), 1518-1546.
Seddon, N. (2022). Harnessing the potential of nature-based solutions for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Science, 376(6600), 1410-1416.
Smith, A. and Chausson. A. (2021). Nature-based Solutions in UK Climate Adaptation Policy. Nature-based Solutions Initiative for WWF-UK and RSPB.
There is huge interest from policy makers, industry and NGOs in ‘nature-based solutions’ (NBS). This concept refers to activities that involve harnessing natural processes in ways that provide benefits both for human wellbeing and for biodiversity, with examples including the protection, restoration or construction of wetlands, green roofs in cities, or tree planting in and around cities to absorb floodwaters.
However, while the idea has been greeted with enthusiasm by many, it has also attracted strong criticism from others. Concerns include the fact that NBS projects may be poorly implemented, or that they have been co-opted by corporate interests, in ways that both over-simplify and commodify nature. In particular, in the context of climate change and the focus on net zero, there are fears that NBS simply becomes another form of carbon credit, linked to carbon trading schemes which serve as offsets of dubious quality and which also distract from the need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Additionally, by relying on simplistic approaches such as get-rich-quick planting of fast growing tree monocultures, so-called nature-based solutions make the nature crisis worse rather than better. An equally strong criticism is that NBS are often implemented without involving - and even at the expense of - local communities and Indigenous Peoples, who, in the name of nature restoration, may be displaced from their lands. Finally, what about food? We need land for nature, for people to live on - and crucially, we also need it for producing food. So what does a NBS solution look like when it takes the human need for food security into account?
Join TABLE for a panel discussion bringing together speakers who look at NBS from different perspectives. Should the concept be abandoned and replaced with an alternative; if so and what might that be - solutions that are not nature-based, or something else altogether? What would a ‘solution’ that takes account of biodiversity, carbon, social justice and food look like?
Kirtana Chandrasekaran is hosted by Friends of the Earth Scotland. She has spent over a decade fighting for food sovereignty and against the injustice of the industrial food system in India, the UK and Europe. At Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland Kirtana coordinated campaigns against GMOs, factory farming, and at European level to reform the European Common Agricultural Policy. Before that she worked for several local NGOs in India against agriculture in the WTO and unfair trade policies, and in support of good governance and local environmental struggles. She has degrees in Zoology, Journalism and Environment and Development. She is originally from Chennai, India and now lives in beautiful Edinburgh with her family.
Nathalie Seddon is Professor of Biodiversity and Founding Director of the Nature-based Solutions Initiative in the Department of Biology at the University of Oxford. She is also Director of the Agile Initiative, co-lead of the Biodiversity and Society Programme and Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, and is a Senior Research Fellow at Wadham College. In 2021, she co-founded the Oxford University Social Venture, Nature-based Insights of which she is non-executive Director. Nathalie trained as an evolutionary ecologist at Cambridge University and has over 25 years of research experience in a range of ecosystems across the globe. As a University Research Fellow of the Royal Society, she developed broad research interests in understanding the origins and maintenance of biodiversity and its relationship with global change. Her work now focuses on determining the ecological and socioeconomic effectiveness of nature-based solutions to societal challenges, and how to increase the influence of robust biodiversity science on the design and implementation of climate and development policy.
Jutta Kill is a researcher and writer. She has studied biology. Her research aims to support communities whose traditional economies and ways of life are threatened by deforestation and false solutions to the deforestation and climate crises. For more than 25 years, she has documented how conservation and forest carbon (more recently called REDD+ and ‘nature-based solutions’) projects have caused conflict with forest communities. Her publications show how such schemes are biased towards blaming deforestation on peasant farming and indigenous peoples' traditional forest use, and how by doing so, the conservation model and forest carbon initiatives make the role of corporate infrastructure, industrial agriculture and forestry in large-scale deforestation invisible. She has published extensively on carbon markets, biodiversity offsetting and the role of the new economy of nature in maintaining ecologically unequal trade and the associated violation of human rights and rights to land and use of peoples' traditional territories. Currently, one focus of her work is on analysing the role of carbon offsetting in further delaying the inevitable rapid phase-out of fossil carbon burning.
Roberto S. Waack is a biologist with a Masters in New Institutional Economics from the University of Sao Paulo. Has over 35 years’ experience as senior executive of pharmaceutical and forestry companies. In the last 20 years, he led enterprises in the Amazon region, involving sustainable management and forest restoration. As an entrepreneur, he is a founding member and shareholder of companies in biotechnology and forest sectors. His career in the private sector was always connected with academic and civil society initiatives, namely at the governance level. Roberto acted as board member (chairman for 3 years) of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), WWF Brasil, Ethos Institute Brazil, Funbio (Brazilian Biodiversity Fund) and others. As a strong believer of multi-stakeholder initiatives, Roberto has acted as a founding member of the Brazilian Coalition for Climate, Forests and Agriculture and the Brazilian Coalition for the Amazon, involving hundreds of actors from the private sector, academy and civil society. Both movements are involved in negotiations, conflict resolutions, knowledge development and advocacy, dealing with the diversity and ambiguities of a plural and complex society connected to land use, food security, forests and climate change. Presently Roberto is serving in governance bodies of private companies in the agribusiness, forestry and circular economy fronts, such as Marfrig, Braskem-Wise Plasticos, Tupy, SuperBid and Re.green. He is the Chairman of the Board of the philanthropic think tank Arapyaú, member of the Strategic Board of the Science Panel for the Amazon and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House (London).
Chair: Dr Tara Garnett, Director of TABLE