Source: REDD-Monitor

Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation

Nature-based solutions are the key to a sustainable future.

You are sitting at a coffee shop and trying to plan out your assignment that is due in three days. Like most students, your mind wanders away. You find yourself just wondering why, in spite of the near global consensus on climate change and billions of dollars committed to tackling the problem, we are seeing minimal success. Okay, I may be carried away in thinking that the average coffee drinker is worried about climate change, but its impacts are nonetheless real and worsening. Almost everything we do, especially in developed countries, contributes to our carbon footprint. Whether it is that trip to Jamaica once this COVID-19 situation dies down, or the New York striploin you had yesterday on your date, or the milk you poured from the one-gallon plastic container – they all have one thing in common: they increase our carbon footprint.

Human activities have thrusted our planet into a climate emergency. This calls for an urgent need for adaptation—adjusting our natural and human systems to minimize climate hazards, exploit climate opportunities, and mitigate—the conscious actions to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and to remove existing GHGs through improving carbon sinks. Climate change is real, and the consequences are vivid. From the melting polar caps of Alaska all the way to Kiribati’s dissipating beaches, climate change stymies our livelihoods and heightens vulnerability to environmental hazards. So, why is there even the existence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? According to their official website, “the IPCC was created to provide policymakers on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options,” (IPCC, 2020). Some of the solutions often floated around by this and other giant institutions include constructing greenhouses to support agricultural food systems in drylands, building reservoirs to collect excess runoff, and providing crop insurance to tackle crop failure. In their “infinite” wisdom, these bureaucrats placed a caveat that we should adopt these strategies in ways that support the national, regional, and local contexts. Interesting, huh? But with the lenses of reality on, how can Kiribati people, who have almost nothing, adapt to their rising sea levels and dissipating coastline, build reservoirs to tackle flooding, and provide farmland insurance for farmers whose farmlands turned into water bodies overnight?

Even though there is a lot of attention to tackle climate change, Nature-based Solutions (NBS)—using traditional and naturally producing resources to mitigate environmental hazards—have been side-lined for technocratic solutions, and sometimes retrogressive—climate wise—technological innovations. Moreover, much of these current approaches are usually bogged down in faulty rhetoric. For instance, everyone wants a better environment, at the same time, also wanting the comfort of owning a luxury and eco-unfriendly car.  Who takes the buses then? It cannot work that way; you must pick your poison! In retrospect, Greta Thunberg was precisely correct when she called economic growth ‘a fairytale.’ The questions that remain unanswered are: why are we so ever focused on the use of artificial methodologies in reverting the world to a more natural state? Would it not help to use a nature-based approach instead? For instance, in the illustration of Megan Leslie—President, and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, the need for NBS could not be more apparent:

“If you think about the increasing floods we are seeing, for example, concrete culverts and breakwaters can only handle so much water. Silver maple can absorb 220 liters of water [an hour]! If we replace all this concrete with natural infrastructure, with green infrastructure, firstly, it can handle the floods. Secondly, it’s resilient… it bounces back.” –Megan Leslie

NBS have emerged as cost-effective mitigation and adaptation strategies that simultaneously provide socio-ecological and economic benefits while boosting resilience among people. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), NBS involves the intentional use of nature for sustainably managing ecosystems and tackling socio-environmental challenges. The nature-based solutions are rooted in the oxymoronic ideals of going back to move forward, looking into naturally occurring solutions that can be humanly instigated and controlled to increase resiliency and fight climate change. These suggestions are topical as they are relevant and include reimagining green housing, utilizing natural resources for construction and plant growth to fight climate change. NBS to climate change emphasizes harnessing the myriad potentiality of nature to reduce GHGs while also adapting to climate-related stresses such as human health, food and water insecurity. NBS to climate change is considered a win-win approach. We get to protect, restore, and sustain our ecosystem while efficiently addressing an existential threat. Further, NBS can be adopted in both rural and urban settings—an attribute which makes NBS more practical and comprehensive.

Rural areas

Although climate change is omnipresent, there are differences in the intensity of these impacts because of two factors: (1) your location in the world and (2), the level of disposable resources with wealth at its core. Sadly, folks in the Global South or the developing worlds, are particularly more affected by climate change due to their heavy dependence on natural resources from which they derive their livelihoods, and their limited availability to adapt to the changing environmental conditions. As dire as these conditions may be, they are also being exacerbated by prevailing adaptation strategies. For example, to stimulate agriculture, the current use of high-nitrogen-fertilizers over time makes the land progressively barren while leaching nitrous oxide into the drainage system and polluting vital drinking water sources for millions of people. With NBS, however, simple practices like mulching (yes, good old mulching), could prove essential for revitalizing smallholder farmlands through soil moisture conservation and sustainably improving soil fertility. Typically, mulching involves collecting and applying decomposing organic matter (e.g. sawdust, wood, grass, food scraps) over arable lands’ topsoil. The best part is that mulching materials are free and readily available. This process could solve the triple problem of utilizing food waste, soil infertility, and improving biodiversity.

A smallholder farming household practicing mulching // Source: Bryan Waters

Another NBS that could be employed in these areas is the utilization of bamboo grass. Bamboo (Subfamily: Bambusoideae) is a fast-growing, drought-resistant grass. It can be the best crop that can grow in some environments. This ancient grass serves many purposes. In fact, there is evidence of its utility in building construction, making furniture, serving as windbreaks, and where native, could even be planted around your luxurious million-dollar home as a living privacy screen (you know, against those shady neighbors). In other words, bamboo is the gift that keeps on giving and there is something in it for everyone. As climate change continues to wreak havoc globally, substituting bamboo in place of plastic in privacy screens or in place of destroying mature Mahogany trees from the rainforest (which take 25 years to grow) are great strides toward reductions in carbon footprint. The bamboo plant thus serves as a stylish, classy, and sustainable alternative. As we begin to care for and incorporate bamboo use in our daily lives, we will also be indirectly preserving biodiversity since it serves as the main diet and habitat for some of the world’s cutest animals.

Locals putting bamboo to use // Source: Panos Pictures/Felix Features

Urban areas

Urban centers or cities are characteristic of high-density infrastructure—roads, bridges, airports, residential and commercial buildings, etc. Many cities like New York and Toronto, struggle with creating and developing spaces for nature. But with a switch to NBS, vegetation can be used to cover the walls or roofs of buildings in urban centers. Green roofs and walls have numerous benefits to the ecosystem and human health. Some of these benefits include insulation provision (thus reducing energy consumption), absorbing rainwater (potential to reduce floods), minimizing the urban heat island effects, and serving as carbon sinks. Green roofs and walls make urban settings aesthetically pleasing as well, which could reduce the stress associated with these busy, noisy, and chaotic systems. Roofs absorb rainwater and can cool the tops of buildings, thereby creating milder microclimatic conditions. The concept of green roofs has taken shape in some cities including Toronto, which in 2009 was the first city to promulgate a bylaw that regulates and governs the construction of green roofs.

 Green walling in urban structures // Source: WikiCommons

Green roofing in urban settings // Source: Urbanscape

Overall, NBS provide sustainable toolkits for adapting and mitigating climate change; they are available and accessible to people in all socio-economic classes. NBS is part of existing ways of life and requires minimal special initiatives to implement. They are cheaper to implement, good for the environment, utilize indigenous knowledge, and are often community based. This also leads to empowerment, which makes implementation and sustainability more feasible. Combating climate change is imperative in every dimension—politically, economically, and morally, because it embodies our collective attempt at saving the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!

Evans is currently pursuing an MSc. Degree with the Geography department of Western University. His research interests focus on agricultural impacts of climate change and adaptation and resilience strategies among rural agrarian communities. Outside of academia, Evans spends time reading and likes to play soccer.

Kamaldeen is an MA student in Geography and Environment at Western University, Canada. His research interest is in environmental change and health, sustainable agriculture and GIS applications. Kamaldeen enjoys playing soccer and video games.

Daniel is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Geography and Environment, who has an MPhil in Development Geography from the University of Oslo (Norway) and an MA in Human Geography from Brock University. His research interests are at the intersection between critical agrarian systems, agroecology and development. In his PhD, Daniel is examining how farmer-led agroecological practices can improve food security, human health and landscape biodiversity in Malawi. Daniel likes to hike and play volleyball in the summer and is currently nurturing an interest in fishing.