The “nature-based solutions” trap


The existing definitions of "nature-based solutions" are vague and leave a lot of room for interpretation, and even co-optation. They hide the complex realities of the corporate concentration of power and the vested interests behind maintaining the status quo of biodiversity destruction and fossil fuel burning.

Teaser Image Caption
Reforested area in São Sebastião da Grama, Brasilien

In recent years, depicting “nature” as a problem-solver has become a new favourite in corporate marketing and at intergovernmental climate and biodiversity conferences, with big conservation NGOs alongside extractive industries’ associations being strong proponents of “nature-based solutions” (NBS). Yet, behind the nice imagery of NBS lurks another form of exploitation: Nature’s carbon storage capacity and biodiversity are being integrated even deeper into corporate profit chains while peasant communities and Indigenous Peoples risk losing control over their territories. The corporate destruction of nature, meanwhile, continues unrestrained by NBS.

The concept of NBS – and the often interchangeably used “natural climate solutions” – taps into positive images of nature as green, healthy, diverse and resilient. Combined with the focus on solutions, the positive imagery obscures the extractivist and financial impetus behind the concept and eliminates questions about who really benefits from NBS. In fact, the vague definition is silent about who is responsible for (creating) the problems that NBS are meant to solve. This leaves room for contradictory interpretations: Initiatives such as the Nature-based Solutions case study platform of the NbS Initiative at the University of Oxford and the Oppla Repository of Nature-Based Solutions of the European Commission showcase land restoration projects – from mangrove restoration to traditional agricultural practices – that emphasise community ownership, while oil and mining corporations highlight NBS that prohibit or restrict traditional agricultural farming in forested areas as well as expand “fortress conservation”-style protected areas and corporate control over community land.

What these initiatives have in common is a failure to name those responsible for the large-scale destruction of nature. Do they showcase palm oil companies foregoing deforestation to expand their oil palm plantations or restoring the land destroyed when these industrial plantations were set up? No. Nor do they include initiatives to end the corporate destruction of nature for oil, gas or coal extraction and infrastructure, the mining of minerals or agro-industrial production. As a consequence, they divert attention away from corporate-led destruction and falsely put the blame on those highlighted in the “solutions” case studies: women, peasant farming families, fisherfolk and Indigenous Peoples.

The rise of a scientifically flawed concept

The concept NBS first appeared as “natural climate solutions” in December 2009 in the run-up to the 15th UN climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) provided the platform for the normative concept development, and the conservation NGOs that advocated the idea initially marketed it primarily as an opportunity to provide additional funding for their programmes concerning protected areas.

Around 2016 and 2017, the concept gained widespread international interest, especially following the publication of a paper titled “Natural climate solutions”, in which the authors claim that “natural climate solutions” could help mitigate up to 37 per cent of climate warming by 2030. The paper’s lead authors were affiliated with The Nature Conservancy, one of the conservation NGOs championing the concept. Its conclusions are based on a range of assumptions, which on closer inspection turned out to be untenable, implausible and would lead to highly undesirable outcomes. For example, roughly half of the claimed mitigation potential comes from afforestation – tree planting on land not covered by trees in recent memory – or reforestation, where the land was covered in trees at some point in the previous 50 years but then deforested.

The land required for this would total nearly 700 million hectares, roughly the size of Australia, most of it evidently in the Global South. The political, economic and social challenges of such a continental-scale change in land use are entirely ignored in the paper. Many climate scientists dismiss the idea that the potential impact of “natural climate solutions” could provide a meaningful response to climate change, and they warn of its side-effects. A publication on the “ecological limits”  of such NBS ventures points not only to the large tracts of land required for such mass afforestation, but also the significant inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus – and the ecological side-effects from the mass-application of fertiliser. Yet, despite criticism of the flawed assumptions underpinning the paper, it continues to be referred to as the scientific source for the postulated potential of NBS.

Vague definitions

A resolution passed at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress defines “natural climate solutions” as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefit”.

In March 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) passed a resolution defining NBS similarly to the IUCN as “actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human wellbeing, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits.”

These vague definitions can encompass the kinds of activities that would help generate widespread support for the concept, such as the restoration of wetlands or forests and traditional agricultural practices. On closer inspection, however, the concept of NBS does not align with the wisdom, cosmology, traditional knowledge and sustainable livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples or peasant farming communities. Revealingly, the definitions do not clarify the kinds of projects that cannot be defined as NBS or what criteria define them. Thus, large-scale “fortress conservation” projects, industrial tree plantations and agriculture projects equally meet the definition. These kinds of activities are already dominant in the implementation of carbon and biodiversity offsetting, and they are of primary interest to financial investors. They are also the kinds of activities that would be needed to provide the volumes of carbon and biodiversity credits demanded by the corporations promoting the concept.

Thus, in essence, the existing definitions of NBS are vague and leave a lot of room for interpretation, and even co-optation. They hide the complex realities of the corporate concentration of power and the vested interests behind maintaining the status quo of biodiversity destruction and fossil fuel burning. This simplification may be attractive in as far as it delays dealing with the structural changes needed to end the manifold crises, of which climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are symptoms. The need for systemic change, however, will not go away, and experiences with carbon and biodiversity offsetting – the corporate sectors’ favoured NBS – provide increasing evidence of human rights and ecological catastrophes. NBS are thus not only a distraction from the real imperative, which is to cut greenhouse gas emissions and halt biodiversity loss, they also violate community rights. In addition to the risk of triggering a new wave of land grabs in the name of climate action and biodiversity protection, NBS thus reveal themselves – both conceptually and in their implementation – to be a dangerous barrier to resolving climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

Taking a foothold in UN policy discussions on climate change and biodiversity

The adoption of the UNEA resolution defining NBS marked the first time the concept was formally discussed and agreed by states in a multilateral forum. UN climate and biodiversity negotiating texts have long recognised the role of nature in achieving the Paris Agreement and biodiversity conservation goals, respectively, but the controversial nature of NBS resulted in any references to the concept being removed from the final drafts of negotiated UN conference texts. This changed with the adoption of the 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, when governments anchored the concept in the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity. In fact, although most of the corporate marketing for NBS is focussed on carbon, the popularity of the concept at the intergovernmental level appears to be advancing primarily in the context of UN negotiations on biodiversity.

In December 2022, countries at the 15th UN Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). The GBF commits countries to collectively protect 30 per cent of land and marine areas and restore 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems by 2030, while respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. These are also known as the 30x30 targets. Targets 8 and 11 of the GBF reference “nature-based solutions”. The actions set out in each target are to be initiated immediately and completed by 2030.

Because governments must translate the targets into National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), these Action Plans will provide further indications about the impact of NBS on Indigenous Peoples and peasant communities. An assessment of these NBSAPs has shown that, to date, only one-third of the assessed NBSAPs include provisions for strengthening the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, despite overwhelming evidence that this is among the most effective of the biodiversity conservation strategies. Those NBSAPs that include strategies to recognise Indigenous Peoples and traditional knowledge tend to prioritise documenting knowledge over protecting knowledge rights or financing the implementation of this knowledge. Revealingly, Indigenous Peoples and local communities tend to be seen as implementation partners where NBSAPs recognise them in implementation; typically, they are named as (co-)managers of protected areas but rarely as full and equal partners.

Governments must present updated NBSAPs before the end of 2024. The updated NBSAPs will provide the first litmus test: Will the nominal mention of the need to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the UNEA definition, intergovernmental declarations as well as the GBF be reflected in the plans determining the impact of NBS on the territories of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities?  

A mechanism for offsetting

The UNEA resolution defining NBS recognises that the concept cannot replace rapid, deep and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In a joint workshop report, the scientific panels IPCC and IPBES – which advise the UN climate and biodiversity conventions – also underscore that NBS must be combined with ambitious and comprehensive emission-reduction strategies that are aligned with the Paris Agreement’s net-zero and long-term goals. Yet, this recognition is absent from oil companies’ “net-zero” emission strategies, which rely heavily on NBS and are largely absent of any indications of “rapid, deep and sustained reductions” in corporate greenhouse gas emissions. They also lack commitments to end fossil carbon extraction in the next decades.

The list of corporations and business associations that explicitly support “nature-based solutions” or “natural climate solutions” includes the world’s biggest polluters: BP, Chevron, Equinor, Total, Shell, Eni, Petrobras, BHP, Dow Chemical Company, Bayer, Boeing, Microsoft, Novartis, Procter and Gamble, HSBC, Woodside Energy, International Paper, Olam, Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever and Mars. None of them have announced that they will end the destruction of nature, nor have they committed to “rapid, deep and sustained reductions” of greenhouse gas emissions.

On the contrary Italian fossil fuel company Eni envisages to still be producing 90 per cent of its energy based on burning fossil gas by 2050. It is marketing this strategy as a net-zero emissions strategy, in which NBS will be relied on to offset the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the continued burning of fossil carbon. Shell’s “net-zero” emissions commitment, too, includes the use of NBS to offset a significant portion of its emissions. Similarly, French fossil fuel company Total – the seventh biggest producer of oil worldwide – announced plans to plant a “40,000 hectare forest” in the Republic of Congo, with the aim to “sequester more than 10 million tons of CO2 over 20 years”. Civil society organisations have warned that this project is likely to be an environmental – and possibly social – disaster that will have little to no positive impact on the climate crisis. The greenwashing will also cover up Total’s continued emissions of greenhouse gases from its oil concessions in the country, and on the African continent as a whole.

Inevitably, as The Nature Conservancy had explicitly intended, NBS are quickly becoming a mechanism “where credits can be offered to businesses that are facing steeper costs to abate emissions in other ways” – in other words, a cheap way for companies to avoid actual decarbonisation and be able to continue to destroy biodiversity. Agribusiness and plantation companies such as Brazil’s Suzano view NBS also as a potential new income stream, which allows them to appear green as they carry on with the usual destructive business models.

As Friends of the Earth note, for the world’s largest polluters, NBS provide a get-out-of-jail-free card by removing the financial pain of having to curtail polluting activities in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, or by helping to evade the imperatives of the environmental justice concerns of governments and the public. At the same time, NBS can provide a new income stream for corporations that offer “NBS services” such as tree planting programmes or carbon trading. In this way, NBS provide a mechanism by which polluting companies, such as fossil fuel producers as well as large forestry and agribusiness corporations, would benefit without having to change their business models and practices. Ending and reversing climate change and nature’s decline is simply not that easy.

For further reading

Tamra Gilbertson and Tom BK Goldtooth. November 2023. COP 28: Why global carbon pricing and trading platforms are false solutions. Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Friends of the Earth International. Toolkit for fighting climate false solutions. October 2023. Includes a collection of media articles, investigations and reports documenting the impacts of “nature-based solutions” on communities and ecosystems across the world.

Lisa Song. Out of balance. ProPublica. June 2023. The World Bank Group enabled the devastation of villages and helped a mining company in Guinea justify the deaths of endangered chimpanzees with a dubious biodiversity offset.

African Center for Biodiversity. August 2023. Cultivating diversity for a just agroecological transition of Africa’s food systems.

World Rainforest Movement. Nature-based Solutions: Concealing a massive land robbery. March/April 2021. A collection of eight articles that show how corporate “nature-based solutions” lead to dispossessions and include much of what rural communities have been fighting against for decades: industrial tree plantations, Protected Areas, REDD projects, carbon and biodiversity offsets, biofuel plantations. Available in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English.

Some examples of harm to local communities from carbon-offset projects that have been marketed as “nature-based solutions”:

Nearly half of the offsets purchased by Chevron are linked to claims or allegations of inflicting harm on communities and spurring the degradation of ecosystems, particularly in the Global South and on the climate crisis frontlines.

Total’s offsetting project in the Republic of Congo has taken land from farmers and threatens their livelihoods.

Communities living within the Alto Mayo REDD+ project in Peru were violently evicted from their homes in a series of clearances by park authorities.

The African Forestry Impact Platform recently acquired Green Resources, a Norwegian plantation forestry and carbon-credit company with a history of land-grabbing, human rights violations and environmental destruction across Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Described as a “Cash-for-Carbon Hustle” by the New Yorker, the South Pole’s Kariba REDD project in Zimbabwe raised at least $100 million in carbon credits before collapsing in scandal in October 2023.

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