The world is facing a growing environmental crisis characterised by climate change, biodiversity losses and increasing disasters, including emerging infectious diseases. These shocks and stresses are interrelated and are driven by unsustainable development, where different crisis’s interplay with one another in ways that are testing our resilience to the limits. Despite these interdependencies, the United Nations’ post-2015 frameworks to deal with challenges of sustainable development, climate change and disaster risk reduction are not well aligned. This causes duplication and overlaps that increase transaction costs and makes little use of synergies that can increase impact.
As global risk becomes increasingly systemic and pervasive across society, there is a need to identify leverage points and strategies for more holistic approaches that strengthen coherence, unlock synergies, reduce opportunity costs and optimise co-benefits. Not surprisingly, given our total dependence on the natural world, nature-based solutions have a vital role in strengthening resilience and sustainability.
Nature-based solutions (NbS) cover a spectrum of actions that work with nature’s ecosystems to address societal challenges, whilst providing environmental benefits.
An important subset of NbS is green infrastructure that encompasses elements of natural systems such as forests, flood plains, coastal forests, and combines these with grey infrastructure (built structures) to produce more resilient, high quality services. For example, the restoration of coastal green belts can enhance biodiversity, increase carbon sequestration, absorbs storm surges, reduce coastal erosion, mitigate flooding and increase amenity and livelihood options.
The transition to “next generation” green-grey infrastructure is important for resilience and sustainability; infrastructure is considered the foundation of a nation’s development and is a critical interface between human and natural systems. Private sector infrastructure service providers, like AECOM, have a vital role in supporting this transition by developing the technical expertise and operational capabilities to integrate nature-based solutions into infrastructure project appraisal, planning, procurement and implementation processes.
otwithstanding the above, although there is a growing awareness of the potential for combining natural and built structures to yield multiple benefits, to date, only a fraction of infrastructure investments support NbS approaches. Scaling up NbS implementation, including green-grey infrastructure, will require coherent actions across technical, financial and policy domains.
At the project level, there are very few tools, methods and technical standards to support the evaluation, optimisation and implementation of integrated approaches that account for monetary and qualitative co-benefits. This is particularly the case when projects are conceived and appraised against narrowly defined objectives. Under current market conditions, investors will legitimately ask how much they are paying when contributing towards public goods that provide benefits for a wide range of stakeholders beyond the immediate project area and timeframe.
More than technical or financial solutions, government policy and regulatory frameworks define the rules of the game and are key to creating an enabling environment for NbS. This includes inclusive institutional arrangements that facilitate multi-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration, particularly the participation of local people who have a strong appreciation of the intrinsic value and range of benefits provided by local ecosystem services.
Arguably most important of all, although perhaps the hardest to change, is the crafting of more coherent development paradigms and system-wide frameworks that bring together stakeholders across policy silos and build coalitions for joint action based on shared responsibilities and mutuality. Experience tells us that in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity. As governments declare climate emergency and plan for COP 26, an opportunity lies in working collaboratively to scale up nature-based solutions to restore our relationship with nature and in so doing, one another.
About the authors
With thanks to AECOM Editors for allowing us to share and celebrate the articles & blogs from various leaders and employees