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Systems approaches are key to scaling up nature-based solutions, Wetlands International Chief Executive tells Climate Action Summit

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As interest in the role of nature-based solutions in decarbonisation and adaptation grows, a more systemic approach and understanding is required, according to Wetlands International chief executive Jane Madgwick at the New York UN Climate Action Summit.

Nature-based solutions – from mangrove restoration to green infrastructure — have become a major area of interest to global leaders looking to ramp up their adaptation, resilience and decarbonisation efforts. Asian countries, in particular, are leading the way. Ahead of the Climate Action Summit this week, China shared plans to “proactively promote” the expansion of grasslands and wetlands as part of its climate efforts, while Indonesia has emerged as a frontrunner in coastline restoration leveraging natural sediment flows and mangroves.

Such solutions hold much promise for other countries but require innovative collaborations and integrated approaches to change the current way nature is planned and utilised in development, Madgwick told the audience at the NBS Momentum High-Level panel event.

Integrating nature into infrastructure design

Speaking alongside Ministers from among others Indonesia, Fiji, Costa Rica, Mexico, Norway, private sector representatives, UN Conventions, World Bank, and civil society organisations, Madgwick pointed out that in the first instance, however, it is imperative to avoid further degrading of ecosystems. Then we must become proactive in harnessing natural processes and integrating nature into the design of infrastructure and development projects. Civil engineers must learn to design infrastructure that can serve more than just one purpose, working with natural processes rather than against them, and that is adaptable to changing conditions, she said.

“For deployment of nature-based solutions at scale, we need governments and donors to incentivise joined-up action by different sectors, putting healthy ecosystems and their services at the heart of sustainable development,” she said.

A ridge-to-reef approach for inland wetland systems

This was echoed by Fiji’s Minister of Defense who called for an integrated ridge to reef approach which includes the protection and restoration of inland wetland systems to counteract increasing floods and droughts. The Director-General Climate Change of Indonesia underlined the need for better partnership and collaboration internationally to safeguard and restore peatlands and mangroves to tackle the climate crisis.

Improved water governance, involving all relevant water users and stakeholders within a landscape system – including across borders – is needed to help revive and safeguard wetlands. The water storage and quality benefits they provide are vital to sustainable development and climate adaptation, Madgwick added.

Madgwick made reference to the Sahel where wetland systems, which provide sustenance in the dry season are now in decline due to a combination of upstream water diversions and climate change. There is an urgent need to revive wetlands alongside re-greening of the drylands, and reorientation of some existing development initiatives to put wetlands at the heart of sustainable development and climate adaptation, helping rural communities to withstand climate shocks and uncertainties.

Stewardship of ecosystems needed

Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) underlined that stewardship of ecosystems is needed to secure water availability and as part of reversing land degradation for which we need to join forces to create a political wave of action.

Nature-based solutions have to be designed for each specific context, based on sound knowledge of how factors such as changes in water flows, sedimentation, infrastructure, vegetation, land use and climate change influence the ability of ecosystems to support society’s demands.

Without a true systems understanding, NBS is in danger of remaining local, ignoring wider landscape and factors that influence it. This can result in maladaptation, or unintended damage to other ecosystems. Such systems thinking and multi-disciplinary collaboration to re-design landscapes for future resilience enables innovation and the use of best practice for nature based and hybrid solutions.

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