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Getting the message right on nature‐based solutions

Image: Free-Photos, Leaves oak fallen, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence

This paper discusses the ways in which nature-based solutions (NbS) to climate change and biodiversity loss are framed and understood, and traces the growth of interest in NbS among researchers, governments, NGOs and the private sector. It sets out four guiding principles for policymakers, practitioners and researchers to implement NbS in ways that provide benefits to the environment and society. 

Nature-based solutions, as defined by the paper and set out in the figure below, include the restoration or management of natural or semi-natural ecosystems, sustainable management of land- or water-based systems that are used by people, and the creation of novel ecosystems.


Image: Figure 1, Seddon et al. Conceptual diagram of nature‐based solutions. 


If properly implemented, the authors argue, NbS are capable of delivering multiple benefits for ecosystems and people, including both climate mitigation and reducing the vulnerability of society to environmental shocks. However, they note that there is confusion among stakeholders of what sort of activities fall under the NbS umbrella.

The authors identify several potential paths through which poorly designed NbS schemes can lead to adverse outcomes:

  • NbS can be a distraction from decarbonising energy systems. For example, some airports, airlines and fossil fuel companies intend to use NbS to offset their emissions. This could be dangerous because there are limits to land area and tree growth and therefore limits to the amount of emissions that NbS can “offset”; furthermore, if fossil fuel use continues at high levels, climate change could turn ecosystems into carbon sources because of stressed vegetation and more frequent wildfires.
  • There can be too much emphasis on tree-planting as a “silver bullet” solution for climate change. The risks of this approach include: tree plantations are not necessarily healthy ecosystems; planting trees in the wrong place can cause releases of carbon from the soil or water pollution; depending on the ecosystem, afforestation can cause more intense wildfires; tree growth can be very sensitive to local conditions; and focusing on planting trees can distract from the need to protect existing ecosystems.
  • NbS can adversely affect Indigenous Peoples and local communities, for example through weak land rights or the alienation of communities through poor management.
  • Benefits for biodiversity are not guaranteed, particularly if plantations of non-native trees replace intact ecosystems such as grasslands.

The paper proposes four guiding principles for implementing NbS successfully, developed in consultation with research institutions as well as conservation and development organisations. These are:

  1. NbS must not be treated as an alternative to the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.
  2. NbS should involve protecting and/or restoring a wide range of naturally occurring ecosystems on land and at sea, and must be valued in terms of multiple benefits to people as opposed to narrow metrics such as number of trees planted.
  3. NbS should be implemented with full engagement with and consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and should help to build human resilience to climate change.
  4. NbS should sustain biodiversity at many different levels, from genes to entire ecosystems.



Nature‐based solutions (NbS)—solutions to societal challenges that involve working with nature—have recently gained popularity as an integrated approach that can address climate change and biodiversity loss, while supporting sustainable development. Although well‐designed NbS can deliver multiple benefits for people and nature, much of the recent limelight has been on tree planting for carbon sequestration. There are serious concerns that this is distracting from the need to rapidly phase out use of fossil fuels and protect existing intact ecosystems. There are also concerns that the expansion of forestry framed as a climate change mitigation solution is coming at the cost of carbon rich and biodiverse native ecosystems and local resource rights. Here, we discuss the promise and pitfalls of the NbS framing and its current political traction, and we present recommendations on how to get the message right. We urge policymakers, practitioners and researchers to consider the synergies and trade‐offs associated with NbS and to follow four guiding principles to enable NbS to provide sustainable benefits to society: (1) NbS are not a substitute for the rapid phase out of fossil fuels; (2) NbS involve a wide range of ecosystems on land and in the sea, not just forests; (3) NbS are implemented with the full engagement and consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in a way that respects their cultural and ecological rights; and (4) NbS should be explicitly designed to provide measurable benefits for biodiversity. Only by following these guidelines will we design robust and resilient NbS that address the urgent challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, sustaining nature and people together, now and into the future.



Seddon, N., Smith, A., Smith, P., Key, I., Chausson, A., Girardin, C., House, J., Srivastava, S. and Turner, B., 2021. Getting the message right on nature‐based solutions to climate change. Global Change Biology, Early View.


Read the full paper here. See also the Table explainer What is the land sparing-sharing continuum?


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