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It’s 5 decades since the UN General Assembly designated June 5th as World Environment Day, marking the first day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. And the first World Environment Day was celebrated in 1974 with the slogan “Only One Earth”. The theme for 2021 is “Ecosystem Restoration”. As our cities, towns and villages are struggling and recovering from the waves of the pandemic, the theme of ecological restoration cannot be more apt for this year’s World Environment Day. The Covid virus has taught us life lessons that no school or university could ever teach. It has told us in more than in one way that life can never return to the normal that we all knew for over the last 50 years and that preserving natural ecosystems without further destruction is central for human existence on this planet.

The State of Finance for Nature report released by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) on May 27, 2021 says: “A total investment in nature of USD 8.1 trillion is required between now and 2050 – while annual investment should reach USD 536 billion annually by 2050 – in order to successfully tackle the interlinked climate, biodiversity, and land degradation crises.” The State of Finance for Nature tracks global trends in public and private investment in nature-based solutions, aiming to improve data quality and identify opportunities for governments, businesses and financiers. This year’s report calls for investments in nature-based solutions to triple by 2030 and to increase four-fold by 2050 from the current level.

While we huddle inside our concrete settlements that have become hotspots for the Covid -19 virus, we now know that only greener neighbourhoods can be healthier, happier and better equipped to deal with the pandemic. So, the need to restore our ecosystems takes top priority. In accordance with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, nature-based solutions seem to advance the SDG goals by 2030.

Impacts of climate change are already hitting our cities, towns and villages. Local governments now need to reimagine nature-based solutions to fuel the functioning of each of these growing settlements. Infrastructure, energy, mobility, housing, waste management, services and more need to be integrated with nature-based solutions.

The IUCN defines Nature-based solutions (NBS) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well -being and biodiversity benefits”.

Adopting nature-based solutions is not a new concept. They have always been there, but with advances in technology, conventional or ‘gray’ methods have been systematically promoted over the decades everywhere for their ease, speed and political economy reasons.

Interpretation of the definition of nature-based solution is very critical. It is one of the latest additions to the world of protecting this planet with its broad definition. Even as it is being promoted by key international agencies, it’s uptake, engagement and the ways in which it will be interpreted is something time will tell. However, adopting nature-based solutions genuinely should be made integral to rejuvenate and maintain parks, open spaces, wetlands, rivers, coastlines, grasslands, mangroves and urban forests. Wherever possible the gray must be completely replaced with innovative nature-based solutions or the gray kept to a bare minimum.

Conventional methods are reliant on non-recyclable and finite resources such as granite, sand, coal, etc and with increasing climate risks they often need to be improved with passage of time, are expensive and cause more ecological damage. Nature based solutions too need maintenance and restoration but are certainly more adaptable, economical, low on emissions, sustain local livelihoods, aesthetic and more suitable to local climatic conditions, besides providing habitats for local flora and fauna.

Barriers to adoption of nature-based solutions are currently many. Lack of awareness and acceptance to shift will take time. For years, the conventional methods have convinced societies that they are long-lasting, robust and apt. A shift to nature-based solutions will raise serious concerns over the reliability, cost effectiveness and cultural acceptance. These barriers, demand a lot of effort in raising awareness, creating model plans, integrating into policy, legislation and regulations.

Implementation of nature-based solutions will also take effort in convincing the finance community as investments are often for hardy, long lasting projects that maximize return of investment. Innovative financing strategies, identifying revenue streams and insurance mechanisms play a vital part in leveraging investments. Nature-based solutions may also create externalities that have an impact on a wide variety of traditional forest dwelling and forest dependent communities creating problems of use and ownership. Tourism based nature-based solutions and collection of Non-timber forest produce for livelihood in many parts are already facing a variety of challenges with private agencies and brokers. In such situations, benefit and risk sharing arrangements needs to be addressed. Taxes, subsidies, land tenure, community resource management, conservation efforts and a host of other things that are in an ambiguous state will make the implementation of nature-based solutions arduous.

Another major challenge with nature-based solutions are their vulnerability to be co-opted by powerful interests and lobbies either exploiting the natural resource or limiting their contribution to the solution. Nature based solutions if not based on scientific and ecological principles will also result in accommodating those solutions that may result in more damage in the long run than good. Good examples of such solutions going wrong are the call to plant trees along the River Cauvery in southern India or the planting of trees in Savanna grasslands in central India. Such approaches have massive economic investments that are destroying local biodiversity, livelihood, water and climate causing irreversible damage.

Strong local governance is key for equitable access and distribution of natural resources and in its absence may give birth to power struggles and unlawful processes. For example, in a watershed management project that spans many villages, districts and different states, a joint decision-making process involving the local, regional, state and national governments, ministries and departments may be required. Active cooperation and coordination across various interests, values and priorities can be very challenging.

Further, the adoption of nature-based solution will also depend on the political economy of the region. The processes and mechanisms that determine decision making at all levels are key in the adoption of nature-based solutions. In a landscape where decentralization in fiscal and administrative decision making is lacking, where symbiotic relations are fragmented with intra and inter party and intergovernmental conflicts, the agendas are largely set by those in power and where monies flow, resulting in nature-based solutions given least priority. A simple example to highlight this point is the rejuvenation of parks in most cities today, are seeing a lot of concrete, granite and steel structures amidst exotic, water guzzling ornamental vegetation. Earth friendly materials and local indigenous and endemic varieties of flora are almost always absent in such parks. The use of conventional material over nature-based solutions provide the local elected representative a good opportunity to showcase the investment and a chance to gain popularity through grand inaugural ribbon cutting ceremonies.

In the context of the existing social inequalities, the idea of nature-based solutions, if financed by the private sector, can turn into private enclaves accessible only for the privileged class. Nature-based solutions can be expensive to implement and maintain. For example, development of green roofs, buildings and enclaves that are completely self-sustained and not connected to the grid may further cause speculative investments and real estate booms, leading to land grabs and vulnerable groups being driven to the margins where environmental and social conditions are unlivable.

With the current uncertainties due to the pandemic, climate risks and biodiversity loss call for immediate action. Given the severity of the current socio-economic problems, ensuring the basic rights enshrined in the constitution to all is indispensable. Ecosystem restoration by employing nature-based solutions will be possible only with an interdisciplinary action research approach that will move away from the business-as-usual practice. It also calls for a review of current practices and a progressive integration of nature-based solutions. The responsibility for the shift must start with the affluent and not forced on the economically weaker sections of the society. It is also imperative to set protocols through discussion and debate with local community participation for a just, equitable and stable financing for such ecosystem restoration.

Picture Courtesy: Radha Chauhan/Flickr

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