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Nature-based Solutions for reimagining the pathway to a sustainable future

Among various response approaches to build back better following the COVID-19 pandemic, one approach that has gained global attention from the perspective of green, sustainable and resilient growth is ‘Nature-based Solutions (NbS)’

NbS are actions that help address societal challenges and foster development by working with nature and anchoring solutions with local communities. They help identify how healthy natural ecosystems can be protected, developed and utilized for services that benefit humans and build systemic resilience. Eventually, these services can also help address global challenges like climate change, poverty and equitable growth in a cost effective manner. For example, the report by Global Commission for Adaptation notes that the cost-to-benefit ratio of preserving mangroves is up to 1:10 in terms of avoided losses from coastal flooding and non-market benefits associated with fisheries, forestry and recreation.

NbS is an umbrella term that encompasses several nature-based approaches like Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) and eco-Disaster Risk Reduction (eco-DRR). There are plenty of examples of NbS in both rural ecosystems and urban areas, ranging from cities in Europe to farm lands in Latin America.

India’s (try)st with NbS

India has multiple examples of successful NbS in both urban and rural areas. One of the globally recognized success stories is from Rajasthan, where the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh supported local communities led by women to rejuvenate local water bodies to help fight one of the worst droughts in the state, increased productive cropland and replenished forest cover by around 33%. More recently, in Andhra Pradesh, zero-budget natural farming, which relies entirely on using organic inputs to improve resilience of both crops and land, is being been promoted at a large scale.

There are also promising urban NbS examples.Through the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCRN), Surat, Gujarat, has designed better management of natural water bodies and prevented construction on the floodplains in the city. Similar practices have been adopted by Burhanpur and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, where with the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), community participation helped in conserving and managing traditional water sources. In east Kolkata, wetlands have been utilized for years to clean the city’s wastewater. The wetland has not only saved the cost of constructing a waste water treatment plant, but also provided sustenance and livelihood opportunities to 50,000 people through topisciculture and agriculture.

Building knowledge and awareness

Apart from the examples quoted above NbS in practice still remains largely scattered and sporadic over the years, due to lack of data and scientific evidence, unavailability of adequate resources, limited commercial prospects, and continued overexploitation and destruction of natural ecosystems. There is also a need to change mindsets associated with the path-dependency on grey infrastructure and the presumed superiority of human technological prowess over nature. This comes fromn the established notion of copnsidering humans as different from nature.

Going forward, there is a need to build a knowledge base and research evidence, particularly on how NbS can help address climate risks and contribute to mitigation and adaptation efforts, move from pilots and be scaled up to cover wider geographies. Scientific research along with economic assessments and strategic implementations frameworks will help inform and strengthen the case for scaling NbS. Globally, international bodies and nation states are now actively working in this direction. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently launched the first-ever global standard for NbS, to increase the scale, assess effectiveness of interventions, etc. It has also launched the Urban Alliance which is developing an urban nature index, for helping cities in adoption of NbS.

Another key aspect is awareness and capacity building among key stakeholders such as business and society leaders, political figures, policy makers, etc. about the benefits of adopting NbS. These solutions have the potential of lowering capital costs, and provide a variety of intangible and tangential benefits. Organizing demonstrations, building narratives and disseminating information among stakeholders have an important role to play. A case in point is the Ignition Project under which efforts have been undertaken to build confidence among business leaders about the benefits of implementing NbS in Greater Manchester. The project curates quantitative evidence of economic, social and environmental value-additions by various NbS solutions such as rain gardens, street trees, green roofs and walls, and urban park spaces. Other components include setting-up a visible demonstrator and a living lab to test green infrastructure approach to combating climate change.

The way forward

Clearly establishing and demonstrating cost-benefit of NbS, complimented by policies like subsidies for NbS and taxing engineering solutions, monetization of some ecoystem service etc can help incentivize and nudge private participation. This is critical not just for scaling but also for leveraging their technical and business expertise in improving existing business models for Nbs.

Ultimately, public investments (along with other concessionals sources such as international donors and philanthropies) would have to take an initial lead to support research and capacity building, engaging experts and undertaking demonstration projects before the private sector awareness and participation reaches the desired threshold. These interventions can be partially supported by charging user fees, and by tax collected due to increased commercial activity and land/ property value appreciation.

Innovatively managing fiscal allocations under flagship schemes and funds are also a viable way to raise finances. National Clean Energy and Environment Fund, National and State Disaster Mitigation Funds, Compensatory Afforestation Funds, District Mineral Foundation (DMF) etc can be tapped for anchoring NbS. Interested urban and rural local bodies can utilize Central Finance Commission grants to implement locally-led actions for public welfare. Lastly, identifying opportunities for integration of NbS within different policies, programmes and planning documents can help accelerate its uptake within the public investment framework. For example, state action plans for climate change, disaster risk management plans, and city master plans, etc. could be recalibrated to integrate natural assets and NbS.

Going forward, India has opportunities to contribute to, and learn from both international and local experiences to promote NbS on a wide scale. A scale wide enough to hopefully, tip the balance in favour of moving to a more sustainable and resilient future.

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