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Two Steps Forward

The US is finally getting serious about nature-based solutions

A new Biden administration framework acknowledges that harnessing nature-based solutions to fight the climate crisis has become table stakes.

Tropical landscape with mangrove forest in wetland from above on Siargao island, Philippines

Tropical landscape with mangrove forest in wetland from above on Siargao island, Philippines. Image via Shutterstock

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You’d be excused for missing it, as it received almost no media attention: Last month, President Joe Biden’s administration issued a "roadmap" on nature-based solutions "to fight climate change, strengthen communities and support local economies."

If that seems a bold initiative, it is — at least as much as a roadmap can be called "bold." Critically, it aligns the United States with the community of nations for which harnessing nature-based solutions to fight the climate crisis has become table stakes.

The roadmap calls for five "strategic areas for action" for federal agencies — that they:

  • make it easier to consider and adopt nature-based solutions;
  • do more to prioritize nature-based solutions in funding decisions;
  • expand their use of nature-based solutions in the design, retrofitting and management of federal facilities;
  • expand educational and workforce training offerings related to nature-based solutions "to support good jobs in federal agencies and the private sector"; and
  • advance research and innovation "to fully reveal the scale of the opportunity that nature-based solutions provide."
White House nature-based solutions report

The framework also aims to "ensure over $25 billion in infrastructure and climate funding can support nature-based solutions."

This wasn’t the administration’s first foray into this topic. Back in April, Biden issued an executive order on "climate-smart forest stewardship" calling for the government to, among other things, "enlist nature to address the climate crisis with comprehensive efforts to deploy nature-based solutions that reduce emissions and build resilience."

When it comes to nature-based solutions, everyone understands what it is, and everyone understands something different.

The executive order and roadmap could go a long way to bringing much-needed rigor to the topic. "Nature-based solutions" is yet another broad sustainability term that has become overused to the point of losing its meaning, much like "net zero," "just transition" or "greenwash." As such, one of the true gifts of the Biden initiatives could be to offer clearer-cut definitions as well as specific actions (if not specific targets, goals or timetables).

‘Huge deal’

When it comes to nature-based solutions, "Everyone understands what it is, and everyone understands something different," according to Shaun Martin, vice president for climate change adaptation and resilience at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He defined nature-based solutions as "the purposeful use of nature to help solve some of the problems that we human beings have created for ourselves, often by degrading nature in the first place."

The U.S. leadership on nature-based solutions could become a linchpin at COP15, the United Nations "biodiversity summit" taking place in Montreal starting this week. At COP15, negotiators from around the world will attempt to forge what has been dubbed a "Paris Agreement on nature," a reference to the landmark 2015 global climate pact, in this case setting targets on preventing biodiversity loss. Scientists say that effectively confronting the climate crisis won’t be possible without also addressing biodiversity. That means stepping up nature-based solutions.

The Biden administration’s latest moves in this arena are "a huge deal," according to Martin, who noted that WWF has "been talking to the administration about advancing nature-based solutions and addressing the climate crisis for quite some time."

"Some of the things they've outlined in the roadmap are really encouraging," he told me. "It's a good first start in the direction we need to go to reduce our emissions and help build the resilience of vulnerable communities to climate change using nature, which is a big part of the equation."

Companies, for their part, could use a "good first start." Over the past few years, many have harnessed nature-based solutions — most commonly in the form of tree planting — as part of their carbon-reduction strategies. But many of those initiatives are slipshod, with insufficient regard for the types of trees being planted, where and how they’re planted, or any oversight on how, if at all, the trees are being maintained or monitored to ensure that they provide promised carbon-sequestering benefits. And they don’t necessarily consider other things that fall into the nature-based solutions rubric: land conservation; permeable urban pavements; greenways that link habitats; wetland restoration; and many others.

Martin emphasized that nature-based solutions aren’t just about protecting nature. They also are about protecting the people who rely on natural systems — which is all of us, but particularly those in marginalized communities, and particularly Indigenous communities. "Planting large stands of monoculture trees might absorb carbon but it doesn't get the benefits for people and biodiversity that we want to see," he said.

Toward that end, it should be noted that the Biden administration last week issued yet another announcement, this one separate but critically related to nature-based solutions: new government-wide guidance "on recognizing and including Indigenous knowledge in federal research, policy, and decision making."

Nature-based solutions aren’t just about protecting nature; they're also about protecting the people who rely on nature.

"As the original stewards of the natural environment, tribes and Indigenous communities have expertise critical to finding solutions to the climate crisis and protecting our nation’s ecosystems," Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said as part of the administration’s announcement.

All of this is part of a long-overdue focus on nature and biodiversity, particularly as they relate to tackling the climate challenge. And companies will find themselves increasingly conscripted into action, thanks in large part to investor and insurer concerns over flooding, storm surge, beach erosion and other impacts on coastal communities and floodplains, among other threatened ecosystems. Two forthcoming frameworks — the Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosure and Science-Based Targets for Nature — will soon enable investors and other stakeholders to better assess how, and how much, companies are doing in protecting the natural capital crucial to their operations and supply chains.

It’s an encouraging sign on a critical topic that has been ignored by policy makers for far too long. Will it make a demonstrable difference? Like nature itself, any changes will reveal themselves slowly over time.

As Shaun Martin put it: "We actually want nature to come out better at the end."

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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