Nature-based solutions : the path from theory to results

December 20, 2021

Photo credit: Iva Rajovic / Unsplash

Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so amazingly know their path.” Alas, it seems, we human beings are the only element of nature that veers away from the path that nature prescribes, creating many problems for ourselves. Thus, the solutions to many of our contemporary challenges may be revealed in discoveries that are a part of nature, rather than in developments that are far apart from it.

When most people think of “nature” they envisage green landscapes, rivers, seashores, mountains, forests, and all that can be seen when one leaves the city. Rarely do people think of something they see within the urban environment as nature – like a park, or a community garden.  

When we force traditional urban development on a natural setting, nature usually suffers. However, when we integrate nature into the city, both can benefit. Many scientists, international development organizations and some governments now consider nature as an essential element of the human environment and are finding ways to integrate the two through a development practice referred to as Nature-based Solutions (NBS). This approach refers to the sustainable management and use of natural features and processes to tackle a range of socio-environmental challenges, such as climate change, disaster risk management, water security, water pollution, food security, human health, biodiversity loss, and migration.

The European Commission has defined NBS as “solutions inspired and supported by nature, designed to address societal challenges which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits, and help build resilience.” According to the EC, nature-based solutions must therefore benefit biodiversity and support the delivery of a range of ecosystem services while addressing human development challenges.

At UNDP we have embraced nature-based solutions as one of our six sigNATURE solutions, the other five being 1) eradicating poverty, 2) improving governance, 3) reducing disaster risks / increasing resilience, 4) expanding access to clean and affordable energy, and 5) promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Each Solution includes a mix of policy advice, technical assistance, finance, and programmes, working in concert with each other and with the other solutions to move all countries forward towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Experience tells us that the conservation, rehabilitation and climate-informed management of biodiversity and ecosystems increases resilience to climate change and provides low-cost and long-term solutions to protect lives and improve livelihoods. Thus, no one approach can be fully considered a sustainable and viable solution without a link to NBS because all human, economic and social development rely on the health of natural systems.

Natural ecosystems power industries, provide fresh water supplies, ensure food security, provide materials for shelter and are a reliable source of incomes. However, we are exploiting them beyond their ability to regenerate. The rate at which current development pathways are damaging and destroying natural capital, biodiversity and ecosystems is exacerbating climate change impacts across the globe, polluting water sources, and compromising food security.

Nature-based solutions at UNDP Ukraine

In Ukraine, the term “nature-based solutions” was not considered in national legislation at the state, regional and local levels in Ukraine until recently.  The approach is now mentioned in the Strategy of Environmental Safety and Climate Change Adaptation until 2030, adopted in October 2021. This is good news, as the use of the term NBS in legislation helps ensure a common understanding of its meaning, substance, basic requirements/characteristics, criteria, application rules and procedures. This is made possible by regulating these issues through such acts of legislation.

Ukraine already has substantial expertise with NBS, and it is being further developed with the support from different levels of government, the international community, local NGOs and activists. More and more attention is being focused on the subject, since Ukraine is entering a new stage of developing and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, stemming from the adoption of the Strategy of Environmental Safety and Climate Change Adaptation until 2030.

Since November 2019, UNDP Ukraine and its Accelerator Lab have been promoting the concept of nature-based solutions, shaping a stakeholder community around the topic. Among the first steps was  the creation of the Community Safari, which engages city residents in searching for innovative nature-based solutions for local communities. Inspired by the success of this approach, UNDP then developed and initiated the project “Nature-based Solutions for Sustainable Cities,” which works with city residents, public authorities, and businesses to pilot and deploy small-scale NBS projects in urban and peri-urban areas.

Tackling climate change and gender inequalities through NBS

Climate change is having a significant impact on human rights and gender equality throughout Ukraine. The climate crisis is exacerbating existing inequalities, causing a significantly negative impact on vulnerable populations, including those mired in poverty, people with disabilities, the elderly, and the homeless. Climate change affects them directly through destroyed housing, crop losses and other factors, and indirectly – for example, through rising food prices. Women, on average, have fewer financial resources, limited access to participation in decision-making, and an additional burden of reproductive work. Responsibility for children, housekeeping, and caring for older relatives makes women less mobile.  It is also more challenging for women to change their residence in the event of a natural calamity or other reasons. A recent study of the socio-gender impact of agro-industrial facilities on rural women conducted by the National Ecological Centre in cooperation with the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy recently confirmed these findings.

More than 80 percent of project participants of the NBS for sustainable cities project were women. This may be linked to historical gender roles as women generally are responsible for making the household and surroundings safe for families and children. The situation at the decision-making level is somewhat different, with the tendency to attribute more positions of higher responsibilities to men. More equal representation at policy and decision-making levels is needed to ensure all plans and activities are inclusive and efficient.

A way forward?

To reap the optimal benefits from such development interventions that involve, initiate or integrate nature-based solutions, local and central governments will need to bring them to scale. The replication and scaling up of NBS will produce the necessary results for climate change mitigation and adaptation as envisaged by Ukraine’s Strategy of Environmental Safety and Climate Change Adaptation until 2030.  All necessary elements are in place; all that is needed is for policymakers to move them forward.  Also, more communication with and input from Ukrainians across the country will help ensure they are both participants in and beneficiaries of nature-based solutions.

Nature-based solutions was a hot topic at the recently concluded 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (“COP26”) in Glasgow, where delegate discussed ad infinitum the interlinked relationship between the global biodiversity and climate crises and the critical role that nature plays in both adaption and mitigation. However, even though such interlinkages were acknowledged, the term “nature-based solutions” was not included in the official outcome documents. For the potential of NBS to be fully realized as a comprehensive solution to many of the world’s challenges, it will need to be taken more seriously when the world meets again in 2022 for COP27 in Egypt.