Nature’s Answers to Human Problems

Amália Safatle, journalist and Editor-in-Chief of P22_ON, the magazine of the FGVces Center for Sustainability looks into the solutions that nature can provide to counter the threats caused by infrastructure overload and deforestation.

With the kind permission of P22_ON, part of the FGV-EAESP GVces Sustainability Research Center

As much as the human mind has become ingenious in its short and recent period in Earth’s timeline, it has no comparison with the  3,8 billion years of evolution of nature. If there is a place where the human being can find most of the answers and solutions relating to quality of life, it is within this formidable open-air laboratory, which is constantly being designed and re-designed.

Human intelligence doesn’t seem so brilliant when, instead of drawing inspiration form the accumulated expertise of nature, it modifies and alters the services it provides, to the point of endangering its very own existence. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), we humans have changed the natural environment more rapidly in the last 60 years than ever before in the planet’s history. The result is a corrosion of the environment’s foundations, which support not only economic activity but also the wellbeing of people and life of all species. Happily, there is a growing perception that it is possible to find answers in Nature-based Solutions  a term coined between 2009 and 2010 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But what exactly are Nature-based Solutions? According to the IUCN, they are interventions which use nature and the natural functions of healthy ecosystems to address the most pressing demands of our time. It is a type of solution which helps protect the environment, as well as providing numerous economic and social benefits.

This is the definition which the Boticário Group Foundation, in affiliation with the IUCN, has adopted for use in its initiatives for disseminating NbS concepts and practices in Brazil – among them, the call for cases which is the subject of this edition, in which the Boticário Group Foundation in partnership with the Centre for Sustainability Studies at FGV-Eaesp and the Ministry of the Environment selected proposals from various regions of the country. NbS uses the attributes and processes of the complex system of nature, such as its ability to store carbon and regulate water flow, with the aim of attaining certain results, e.g. reducing the risk of disasters, improving human wellbeing and promoting a green and socially inclusive economy. By doing so, it can transform environmental and social challenges into innovative opportunities, transforming natural capital into a source of prosperity.

Why now? – reasons for implementing Nbs

  • Raising awareness and interest in managing and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services as a means of reducing economic risks by guaranteeing the continued supply of essential resources.
  • Demonstrable financial advantages through the reduction of initial capital expenditures and operational costs.
  • It is an umbrella term which promotes our dependency on biodiversity to increase the resistance and resilience of socio-ecological services in relation to global changes and unforeseeable extreme events, as well as providing ecosystem serviceswhich positively contribute to human health and wellbeing.

Source: European Commission, 2015. Nature-based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities

Abroad, the concept and application of NbS has been more strongly disseminated by the European Commission, which has adapted it to its own development outlook. But what about in Brazil, a recognised environmental power with profound economic and socio-environmental problems? “There is little available information on the subject, and most of it is international, which makes it difficult to apply to Brazilian reality”, says Maria de Lourdes (Malu) Nunes, executive director of the Boticário Group Foundation. “Through this initiative, we are showing that it is possible to face the various problems that exist in our society using nature as part of the solution.”

The greatest advantage NbS has, is its broad approach. Solutions draw on a range of actions in several fields, such as restoration, infrastructure, management and protection to face social challenges – among them access to clean water, food, income generation and climate balance – with the aim of providing human wellbeing, at the same time as generating benefits for conservation. “NbS helps us reach the objectives of the UN conventions on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification”, says André Ferretti, biodiversity economics manager at Boticário Group Foundation.

They also contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the fulfilment of the Brazilian National Adaptation Plan (NAP). Launched by the government in 2016, one of the plan’s principles is Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA). EbA, in turn, is a form of Nature-based Solution.

According to Malu Nunes, inclusion of the EbA in the National Adaptation Plan opens up an important space for the strategic use of Nature-based Solutions, as NAP guidelines are passed on to local government and companies of various sectors. The National Adaptation Plan (NAP), a National Policy on Climate Change instrument, recognises the role ecosystem services play in reducing human vulnerability, and has among its guiding principles the prioritization of Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) measures for adaptation to climate change in the country. “The concepts of EbA and NbS are so similar and synergistic that they blend together. It can be said that EbA measures are Nature-based Solutions focused on the challenges of climate change”, says Mariana Egler, environmental analyst at the Ministry of the Environment.

Egler points out that, among the selected projects in this case call, around seven could equally be considered Ecosystem-based Adaptation solutions, as they are based on the recovery of ecosystems seeking the provision of ecosystem services which reduce vulnerability to climate change. These are: projects related to the conservation and supply of water (proposed by WRI, IAV Vale Environmental Institute, The Bioatlântica Institute and Prefecture of Catende); those focused on the reduction of urban flooding (Prefecture of Campinas); and those pertinent to the reduction of coastal vulnerability through the recovery of sandbanks (Fluminense Federal University) and the improvement of water quality (Phytorestore). “The development of studies for monitoring the results of these initiatives in the long term could provide technical and scientific subsidies for consolidating those actions, in comparison to grey initiatives, especially if we consider the multiple benefits of AbE measures and their long-term financial viability” says Egler.

Principles of NbS

  • Delivers an effective solution to a global challenge using nature
  • Supplies biodiversity benefits in terms of well-managed diversity and ecosystems
  • Better cost-effectiveness in relation to other solutions
  • Can be communicated in a simple and convincing manner
  • Can be measured, verified and replicated
  • Respects and reinforces the rights of communities over natural resources
  • Links public and private sources of finance

 Source: IUCN. 2012. The IUCN Programme 2013-2016

Society’s perception

Society often does not realise that the benefits it is receiving come from ecosystem services, such as access to clean water and food. “The concept of Nature-based Solutions is a way of raising people’s awareness about the services nature provides, and in the process attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, says Matheus Couto, an analyst of the cooperation between the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC).

However, Couto thinks that it is necessary to assess, case by case, when solutions should be sought in nature, in engineering, or in hybrid models, which mix the two. Those based on nature are not always both more effective and more affordables. Sometimes, paths which integrate NbS with engineering can be better, from this point of view. This is shown in the Resilience to Extreme Weather report, published in 2014 by The Royal Society Science Policy Centre, regarding impact reduction of extreme events, such as heat waves, tidal waves, floods and droughts (see figure 12 of the study).

In any case, for Couto, there is the need for different solutions as a form of increasing the conservation of biodiversity and natural systems. This is because of the fact that of the 17 SDGs, there are four which are related to the biosphere, and form the basis of everything: life on earth (SDG 15, life under water (14), clean water and sanitation (6) and the fight against climate change (13). This approach, which proposes a new understanding of the SDGs, was presented in June last year by Stockholm Resilience Center director Johan Rockström, and Pavan Sukhdev who is on the board of the Center.

As the ‘wedding cake’ image shows, the four SDGs which form part of the base support the eight social goals, among them the eradication of poverty, gender equality and quality education. From there, it is possible to reach the four economic goals, such as decent employment, growth and responsible consumption. Running across them all is the 17th goal, which is the partnerships needed to achieve these goals.

Credit: Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre

In short, Rockström and Sukhdev’s message is that the economy must serve society in order for it to evolve within the planet’s safe operational space. Such an approach, however, has not gained traction with the United Nations, for whom it could inadvertently create a hierarchy among SDGs, instead of viewing them transversally.

For André Ferretti, the wedding cake diagram helps reinforce the understanding that the other goals cannot be reached if the natural foundation is not well preserved. According to Ferretti, as well as serving as a pillar, nature, and those solutions based on nature, end up generating additional benefits, contributing to the attainment of other goals. When restoring a forest area, for example, the gains for climate and water quality and supply are linked to food, human wellbeing and income generation benefits if fruit plants are used among the species. Another example: in containing a hillside susceptible to landslides, if a nature-based restoration is carried out instead of a conventional retaining wall, there will also be associated gains – in terms of landscape, microclimate and ecosystem recomposition.

By encouraging NbS, the Boticário Group Foundation has repositioned its action strategy, seeking to amplify the effects of its performance/operations/actions. According to Ferretti, the Foundation, which has worked in conservation since 1990, had focused its activity on the conservation of protected areas and supporting projects through grants. The Foundation eventually decided to go beyond philanthropy, acting on a par with the private sector via Payment for Environmental Services (PES), a system of remuneration through which the agent promoting the environmental benefit is rewarded and the beneficiary must pay the relevant economic cost.

It took a further leap from there to stronger action related to water, climate adaptation and mitigation. “Since 2015, we have had more contact with EbA and NbS, which has to do with our institution, which is a business foundation”, says Ferretti. This is because NbS can be a part of private investments, generating profit while promoting conservation. The call for cases is a result of this new front of action. “We hope this material will inspire other companies, universities and governments to help their regions benefit by using nature as a solution”, says Malu Nunes.

Useful links:

  • Visit the FGV-EAESP website
  • Explore the GVces Center for Sustainability

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