The Potential, and Risks, of Nature-Based Climate Solutions

Nature-based climate solutions can play a major role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. But biodiversity risks, and community impacts, loom large.

Technology often seems to be the focus when conversation turns to solutions to address climate change. Clean energy, carbon capture and even geoengineering dominate headlines and attract the attention of climate-focused investors. When it comes to protecting coastal communities, infrastructure projects like sea walls and raised roads likewise grab attention, particularly after extreme weather events.

Yet, nature itself is likely to play just as important a role as engineered solutions in our efforts to slow climate change and navigate its worst impacts. Today, scientists and some policymakers are aggressively exploring the potential of nature-based solutions to help us slow and adapt to climate change.

Nathalie Seddon, a professor of biodiversity at the University of Oxford, discusses the promise, challenges and potential moral hazards of nature-based climate solutions. Seddon explains what qualifies as a nature based-solution, and looks at the community and biodiversity impacts that need to be taken into account when putting nature-based solutions into action. She also looks at efforts to quantify the benefits of natural climate solutions as a means to accelerate investment.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. Technology often seems to be the focus when conversation turns to solutions to address climate change. Clean energy, carbon capture, and even geoengineering dominate headlines and attract the attention of climate-focused investors. When it comes to protecting coastal communities, infrastructure projects like seawalls and raised roads likewise grab attention, particularly after extreme weather events. Yet nature itself is likely to play just as important a role as engineered solutions in our efforts to slow climate change and navigate its worst impacts. Today scientists and some policy-makers are aggressively exploring the potential of nature-based solutions to address the climate challenge.

On today’s podcast, we’ll take a look at the promise, challenges, and potential hazards of nature-based climate solutions and explore what it will take to implement these solutions rapidly on a global scale. My guest is Nathalie Seddon, a Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford and Founding Director of the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative. She will explain what qualifies as a nature-based solution and look at the community and environmental impacts that need to be taken into account when putting nature-based solutions into action. She’ll also discuss the challenge of attracting financing for nature-based products. Nathalie, welcome to the podcast.

Nathalie Seddon: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Stone: You’re the founder of the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative. What does the initiative do?

Seddon: Well, broadly speaking, the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative is a program based at the University of Oxford that delivers interdisciplinary research, education, and policy advice, all aimed at enhancing awareness and understanding of ways of working with nature in a rapidly changing world.

A bit more specifically, we do lots of work on bringing together the evidence-based from both science and practice on the socioeconomic effectiveness, the ecological effectiveness, and the climate effectiveness of nature-based solutions. So we do a mixture of systematic reviews to try to bring together existing evidence. We then do pure research to try to plug the evidence gaps, and then we bring together evidence to formulate guidelines on best practice. And on that basis, we provide evidence to decision-makers in governments and business.

Stone: Broadly speaking, what defines a nature-based climate solution?

Seddon: Very broadly speaking, nature-based solutions are ways of working with nature to address societal goals. Nature-based climate solutions are sort of subsets of nature-based solutions, specifically focusing on delivering climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits for people. In terms of defining them, they are place-based partnerships between people and nature. They are biodiversity-based, and they involve a combination of protecting natural and semi-natural ecosystems, restoring those ecosystems, sustainably managing our working lands, and creating new ecosystems, for example, in and around our cities.

Stone: So these contrast with what we think of frequently as engineered solutions, which is everything from direct air capture, to seawalls — kind of the more technology or infrastructure-based projects, right?

Seddon: Yes, absolutely. They contrast with them, but as we might discuss later, they work well with them. They’re not an alternative to technology. In many contexts they are effective working as hybrid solutions with technological solutions.

Stone: Most countries include nature-based solutions as part of their plan to achieve climate targets under the Paris Agreement. How big of a role do countries expect nature-based solutions to play in meeting their carbon reduction targets?

Seddon: Well, it’s very good to think about this from a country’s perspective, but actually it’s very difficult to determine what sort of mitigation and adaptation potential investing nature can deliver at a country level. Most of the analyses to date have tended to focus at the global level, and there are a lot of different interdisciplinary research teams working all over the world to really focus on this question.

If we think, first of all, about the mitigation side, and then we’ll move on to the adaptation side — although as I will emphasize, it’s really important to think about these things together when we think about nature-based solutions. The idea is that they deliver multiple benefits, not just one thing over the other. But when it comes to mitigation, if we were to scale up nature-based solutions globally to the maximum extent possible, so if we were to protect our intact lands — our forests, our wetlands, our peatlands, our grasslands and so forth.

And if we were to do that, and if we were to properly, sustainably manage our working lands, our croplands, our grazing lands, and if we are to restore native vegetation cover to the maximum extent possible, taking into account limits on where these activities can take place, taking into account social and biodiversity safeguards and also several other factors like the price of carbon and demand and supply for different sorts of food production systems — if we take all of that into account, what we can expect is 10 gigatons less of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere per year for up to the next hundred years.

So 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year could be removed from the atmosphere by scaling up nature-based solutions. Now this is a fairly big figure, and it’s around 27% of carbon dioxide emissions from human activity that would be absorbed. But I think it’s very important to place that figure in the broader context of what can be achieved with reductions of emissions from fossil fuels.

Recently I was involved in a study that was looking at this, so trying to reframe that 10 gigatons with respect to the Paris Agreement goal, and what we find is that if we achieve peak warming of 2 degrees Celsius post-industrial times, by about 2075 — so towards the end of the century — nature-based solutions would knock about a third of a degree off peak warming.

So it is an important amount, but it’s really important to understand that we cannot achieve that third of a degree of peak warming unless we also drastically and effectively reduce our emissions by basically keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Unless we have decarbonization across all sectors of the economy, we won’t achieve that because the warming that will result will undermine the biosphere, will degrade and destroy the biosphere and cause it to be ultimately a net source of greenhouse gases, rather than a net sink, which it currently is.

So that’s the mitigation side, and it’s sort of complex, but nonetheless possible to put a figure on the mitigation potential. There’s lots of work on this. It’s a very, very important question. When it comes to adaptation, there aren’t those specific metrics. We can’t look at carbon. But we do know, and there is a growing evidence base around the fact that working with nature is really important for adaptation, incredibly important for adaption. Working with nature can deliver adaptation benefits along three different pathways.

The first is it can reduce our exposure to extreme weather events, for example, to flooding and to droughts. It can reduce our sensitivity to those events, and it can also increase our adaptive capacity and our social capital, in other words our ability to deal with future change. There is lots of evidence from all over the world that working with nature can really help us deal with the climate change that’s already locked into the system. And it’s a really important thing not to overlook when thinking about nature-based solutions, those adaptations or those resilience benefits that nature can provide.

Stone: That’s so important what you point out, that nature-based solutions both have a mitigation potential, as well as an adaptation potential, right?

Seddon: Yes.

Stone: I wanted to draw attention to a paper that you and a number of co-authors published at the end of this past December. The title of the paper is “Getting the Message Right on Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change.” You have been outspoken in your criticism or concern around the simplistic way that nature-based solutions are commonly presented to the public. In this paper, there is some warning about the danger of this. Can you talk more about what that concern is about?

Seddon: There are two key elements to that concern. One is around this idea that tree-planting is some sort of silver bullet climate solution, that if we just plant enough trees on this planet, we will be able to make up, we will be able to stabilize our climate system, we’ll be able to offset all the damage that we’ve done to both the biosphere and the climate.

Stone: Like with the Trillion Trees Initiative that we’ve heard about, right?

Seddon: Exactly. And the problem with that is, that sort of silver bullet idea, it sort of then deincentivizes action and financing and implementation of all the other approaches that we also need in order to keep us safe. It’s really, really problematic, and nature-based solutions are currently being misused for greenwashing. So this idea that promoting nature-based solutions as carbon offsets while continuing business as usual in fossil fuel use is really emphatically not a solution to climate change. In fact, it can encourage continued or even increased fossil fuel consumption, leading to more emissions overall. It can also distract from or delay the need for systemic change and a transition to what is increasingly being called a “nature-positive economy.” So it’s sort of distracting and delaying the decarbonization and is often giving people a false sense of security around their own individual consumption and so forth.

So that’s really, really problematic. Nature-based solutions can make a vitally important contribution to reaching that zero emissions, as I said before, but only if it is combined with very ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise by burning less fossil fuel. So it’s really, really important to get that message out there. The problem is that these poor-quality nature-based offsets, for example investments in single species commercial forestry plantations, which might be useful in terms of providing the wood we need — and wood production is important. But deploying that as a climate solution is problematic because it actually might have negative effects on climate change mitigation, as well as adverse effects of biodiversity, and critically also the people who depend upon the ecosystems often get damaged as commercial forestry operations are scaled up.

Stone: Earlier you briefly noted that nature-based solutions have to work in conjunction with technology and engineered solutions. It’s an all-in kind of solution here we’re talking about. But one of the challenges is going to be getting nature-based solutions scaled up. And to date, as you’ve pointed out, investment in nature-based solutions has not been adequate at all. The funding deficit appears to be due at least in part to the difficulty in gathering data that allows the economic value of nature-based solutions to be quantified. I guess that’s why we’ve seen plantations, because they’re very discrete, they’re easy to understand; but many of these solutions are not. Can you tell us about this missing data problem and why it creates barriers to investment and action on nature-based solutions?

Seddon: I think there’s growing understanding in governments of the world and in business as well that investing in nature is incredibly important because it reduces all sorts of risks. And increases on the business side and reduced risks increase opportunities that the continued degradation of the natural world is basically undermining the development gains of the twentieth century. It is increasing poverty and inequality around the world. It’s an exciting time to be working in this space because more and more decision-makers are realizing that. But the problem is that often the benefits from nature are seen as a little bit more long-term benefits, so there’s a real question of scale, time scale and also spatial scale here. But actually what we’re finding is that investment in ecosystem restoration and landscape restoration can also generate more short-term economic benefits, as well. So it can stimulate livelihoods, obviously, job-creation and so on is all stimulated by those sorts of investments. And realizing that is really important. Sharing knowledge about that and making evidence on that more broadly available is very important.

But I think it’s also becoming more understood that there are those vitally important, cost-effective approaches to dealing with flooding and droughts and coastal erosions that nature provides. There’s evidence to suggest that the cost effectiveness of coastal restoration projects is between 3 to 5 times greater than geoengineering or technological projects. For example, there’s growing evidence in the USA that salt marshes in the Northern USA protect around 23 billion US dollars-worth of property during the hurricane season, and that the broader the area of the salt marsh, the greater the benefits, the greater the economic returns on investing in that salt marsh there are. But there is a great need to bring that information to the right decision-makers to engage more with the insurance industry to highlight the cost-effectiveness of working with nature to address these really increasingly hazardous problems that we face under climate change.

And similarly, there are ways of working in our landscapes that can reduce the intensity and frequency of forest fires. There are ways of bringing trees into agricultural landscapes that will really mitigate the impacts of droughts. In Sub-Saharan Africa a practice like agroforestry is incredibly important.

So in lots of parts of the world the evidence that working with nature isn’t an economically important thing to do is sort of building every year, as we face more and more intense impacts from climate change. And often local communities all over the world have actually been working with nature in these ways for a long time, especially in those parts of the world that are used to more climatic variability. And it’s just about how we can share that understanding of ways of working with nature more broadly and enable sustainable flows of finance to those sorts of interventions so that they can scale out and scale up across the world.

Stone: Is it particularly difficult — it would seem to me that it is — to quantify the benefits?

Seddon: Yes, yes.

Stone: You take an engineering solution. You know what it costs. You know how much carbon dioxide might be removed from the atmosphere, but it seems like nature-based solutions are more complex.

Seddon: They are more complex, but actually a lot of the science is in place, and it’s a question of bringing these different data sets together. We have really very quite sophisticated technology now for quantifying biodiversity, for example, from the ecosystem. What has become very clear is that these metrics need to be very holistic. They need to include carbon and biodiversity and to the societal benefits of the ecosystem services. If you just focus on the carbon benefits of a particular intervention, be it a nature-based intervention or a technological intervention, that will inevitably — or almost inevitably — have negative outcomes for biodiversity. For example, a tree plantation generally — it depends on the baseline, of course — but generally will have poor outcomes for biodiversity if not properly implemented. But at least in the short term, it might bring benefits in terms of carbon sequestration and storage.

So there is a really urgent need to bring together the science of biodiversity with the science around how you quantify carbon sequestration and storage and develop much more holistic metrics for offsetting or insetting schemes within company supply chains and so forth.

For example we now know that we have sophisticated methods for measuring the diversity of life in our soils, as well as among different sorts of trophic levels within the ecosystem. We can bring all that data together. So there’s a real need for biodiversity scientists to start collaborating in a more interdisciplinary way so some of that understanding of what makes for a healthy ecosystem can better inform initiatives which have been established to help companies meet their environmental goals.

Stone: There are a couple of points here I wanted to dive a little bit more deeply into that you’ve just mentioned. One is that your work emphasizes that nature-based solutions must take into account the needs of local communities. You just talked about that. Further, if not — if these communities’ needs are not taken in account — the real risk here, or one of the major risks is that climate benefits themselves are likely to be temporary, in addition to the fact that the communities can be harmed. Can you tell us a little bit more why that is?

Seddon: Yes, just to reiterate the point — to deliver effective, legitimate, resilient, nature-based solutions or outcomes of interventions — all relevant to stakeholders at the local level need to be fully engaged with, especially with indigenous people in local communities. And it’s not so much just simple engagement. That term is a confusing one. They need to be involved in a very fundamental way in all decisions about what happens to their ecosystem.

Stone: This shouldn’t be imposed upon them, right?

Seddon: Yes, exactly, they need to be engaged in the implementation, the design, the management, the monitoring, the evaluation of the projects. All those interventions should foster ownership, empowerment, and well-being of the people. And if that doesn’t happen, then those nature-based solutions are not going to be sustainable. And there are several really good reasons for that.

An obvious one, I suppose, is that often they are the stewards of the land and the natural resources, and they often have really comprehensive, rich knowledge of those ecosystems and their management. They’ve been adaptively learning about how to work with their ecosystems, often for a very long time, learning lessons from past mistakes and so on. They have very specific insight into the local context and what works there, because nature-based issues are very, very place-based. What works in one valley might not work in an adjacent valley, or even different farms might have different sorts of geomorphologies and different habitats and things that those local people will know best how to manage. So if we ignore that, then we risk actually having poor interventions. We have to take that knowledge into account.

I think local information about the diverse values of nature and how these differ across different sectors of society is very important to ensure that the benefits from the intervention are equitably distributed. Sometimes you can have an intervention, and maybe some parts of the society benefit from it. But maybe the poor and more marginalized parts of the society might be harmed by it. And the problem is all these sorts of things then undermine the sustainability of it. There will be little local incentives to maintain the project. I think that’s really, really important. Nature-based solutions that take into account local diverse values and beliefs, and especially in nature-based solutions where the implementation of it really builds social capital, builds social bonds are much more likely to be maintained over long-term. This encourages stewardship, and with better stewardship, nature is more likely to be able to continue providing all these benefits for people.

Stone: [OVERTALK] I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Seddon: So there are examples all over the world where there has been top-down imposition of an intervention, forestry intervention for example, where people have lost their land or it has been at the establishment of a protected area which hasn’t taken all these things into account, and it causes a lot of conflict locally. And then conservation action is then perceived to be the enemy of the poor, whereas actually obviously the opposite is true. And so we really have to respect that. And I think that’s why we always emphasize that nature-based solutions, for it to be a solution, it has to respect that community knowledge and those land rights, because if it doesn’t, it won’t be sustained.

Stone: It sounds like in a worst-case scenario, if the land is used in a way that the people who are from that area cannot use it anymore, they lose their livelihoods. That’s the worst-case outcome, right?

Seddon: Absolutely. They’ll lose their livelihoods, and they’ll lose their motivations to protect the forests and to not hunt. There are all of these things. There are a lot of local pressures which arise through poverty. And so there’s a way of delivering and implementing or financing nature-based solutions which can deliver lots of livelihood and economic benefits for the local communities. It can improve their own trajectories through life with their own prospects. And so the really successful nature-based solutions are often quite small-scale ones, ones that have been designed and implemented by those local communities. Those are the ones that sustain. Those are also the ones that sort of naturally scale out by word of mouth. If something is working in this community, and people are benefitting because their fisheries are healthier, because they’ve got a more regular and more secure supply of honey or whatever it is that they use from forest, then others will just do it, even without external funding coming in. It will just be the best thing to do for the environment because they’ll be healthier and happier as a result of it.

Stone: You’ve mentioned biodiversity a number of times in our conversation, and you’ve emphasized that nature-based solutions must protect biodiversity. My understanding is that’s not just biodiversity for its own sake, it’s that preserving biodiversity is actually crucial to the very success of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Can you tell me a bit more why biodiversity is such a priority?

Seddon: I think that’s a very good question and a very important one. Biodiversity is the diversity of life right from the level of the gene through to the level of the ecosystem. There’s a lot of confusion about that. Biodiversity is not wildlife. It’s not an elephant or a mahogany tree. It’s not something like that. It is that which secures the flow of all that we value in nature. So that diversity of genes, diversity of species, and all the interactions between them stabilize and ensure the productivity of that ecosystem. So if you start taking away or eroding biodiversity, that ecosystem starts to function less efficiently.

For example, intact forest is much, much better, much more stable in its sequestration and storage of carbon. As soon as you start taking out some of the trees, as soon as you start losing some of the large-bodied birds and mammals that are responsible for the dispersal of seeds, for example, then that forest is much less able to do its job, even just in terms of carbon storage. If you start messing around with natural ecosystems, they are much, much less able to do all of these things that we need them to do or these things that underpin the value of nature basically as our life support system.

And the reason is that the more diversity you have, or the closer an ecosystem is to having naturally-evolved levels of diversity, the more resilient it is to change. And the one thing we know about the future is that much more change is coming, and so we need to have a diverse portfolio of species because the more species you have or the more intact the ecosystem is, the more likely it is that at least subsets of the community of species will be able to still function, produce biomass, do the pollination — all the other things that nature does. Even during extreme droughts or during an extreme flood, there will always be something there. So there’s a lot of experimental evidence to support this notion that the more diverse or the most intact an ecosystem is, the more able it is to deal with change, the more able it is to deal with pests and pathogens and disease. So it’s just much more resilient, much as an investment portfolio is more resilient if it is diverse. It’s the same logic, and the scientific evidence is very much there to support that now in a range of ecosystems.

So if you ignore the biodiversity question, you are unlikely to have a stable mitigation or adaptation solution deliverable by your ecosystem. And sometimes people overlook that. They think, “Well, we’ll plant some trees.” They don’t think about the diversity of trees. They don’t think about the resilience that forest might deliver in terms of carbon for the short-term. But in a rapidly changing world, with more floods and fires and droughts and more diseases, it’s very unlikely to be able to do that for the long-term. So those thinking about investing in nature-based solutions are really wise to think about investing in biodiverse, nature-based solutions. Otherwise, they won’t get the return on their investment.

Stone: Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage has gotten quite a lot of attention for its potential to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but it also requires these potentially large monoculture plantations to grow the energy crops. Is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, simply called BECCS — is it compatible with biodiversity, as you’ve been talking about?

Seddon: No, BECCS requires an enormous amount of land, and would trade off not just with protecting biodiversity that we need for our own resilience, but also with food production. There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done on the BECCS approach in order to understand how it could go to scale and not cause more harm than good. So BECCS is not ready to go to scale, and may never be scalable because it does require, as you say, a practice that will compromise other goals — biodiversity and food goals — but also it drains the soil. It depletes the soil, contributing to the application of fertilizers. And that results in pollution and other social and ecological impacts. So we’re not there with BECCS at all, and we may never be. In its current form, in its current conceptualization, it could do more harm than good.

Stone: Everything that you’ve been talking about really brings to mind, when we’re looking at nature-based solutions, how complex they are. You have so many considerations. You’ve got the projects themselves. You’ve got biodiversity concerns. You’ve got community concerns. So much is into this. It’s clearly going to require complex systems thinking to put these solutions to work at scale. And I guess that brings up the question of: If this is so complex, if it’s multidisciplinary, who is going to design and oversee these programs or these systems at scale? Is this going to fall to government? Is it going to fall to industry? Can you talk about that?

Seddon: I think it’s all about public/private partnerships. It’s all about big, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary ways of working, so a real change in the way we work. And we talk about systemic change around diet and energy use, but we also need a systemic change in how we all work together on the science side. We can’t even investigate these solutions without bringing in social scientists, working with natural scientists, working with physical scientists. We no longer can work in our silos in our disciplines, and similarly, as you point out, nature-based solutions involve landscape-scale decision-making. So from a government point of view, you need different ministries working together. You need the Ministry of Agriculture working with Forestry, working with Water, working with Finance. And so there’s a real need for completely new ways of more cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary ways of working. And not just governments working on their own, but governments working with businesses.

In the UK we see businesses working with local governments to implement nature-based solutions in the landscapes. This is happening all over the place. It has become obvious that this is the only way to deliver some of these solutions, so it is actually happening, but it is perhaps one of the biggest challenges to scaling up nature-based solutions — that need for collaboration across all these different entities that are used to working in silos. But it has become very apparent that we can no longer do that.

In fact, the broader narrative around climate change has shifted in this regard. For decades, the climate change, biodiversity, and development communities were all working in isolation from one another. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is them pulling together more, at least acknowledging that they all need to work together and to set targets that don’t contradict one another but actually harmonize.

Stone: Now you’ve emphasized that nature-based solutions can drive significant carbon dioxide reductions if we act quickly, and much less so if we don’t. Can you tell us about the time constraints related to nature-based solutions?

Seddon: Nature-based solutions are scalable right now, whereas a lot of the technology that we undoubtedly need is not yet ready. We need to be investing a lot more research into development into those technological solutions around carbon dioxide removal, around carbon capture and storage. We’re going to need all the solutions. As I said at the beginning, they work together, both on the mitigation and the adaptation side. But a lot of the tech isn’t there yet. It’s not scalable. BECCS isn’t scalable. It’s a biological solution. It’s not a nature-based solution. But that’s not scalable.

We need to do everything, but the thing about nature-based solutions is that we can do them now. But we also, when it comes to restoring landscapes that have been very heavily degraded, we need to start the process of regenerating our landscapes now because obviously it’s going to take some time for those ecosystems to grow back, to regain their communities, to reassemble. Now, in some landscapes, it’s often just a question of leaving it, and nature will do its thing. But in many landscapes that have been degraded so badly through repeated fires, through overuse of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals, all that leaves landscapes in really bad shape, which just means that there’s going to have to be quite a lot of human intervention in the landscape to get them going, to build up the fertility, to bring in vegetation.

And then you’ve got the extra complexity in a warming world, in some landscapes we’re not sure necessarily which is the right combination of species. We’re seeing rain shifts of many species of plants and animals under climate change. And it might be, for example, in the UK, that some landscape restoration programs are going to need to think about using more Mediterranean species because native species are no longer able to cope with the climatic conditions that we now have here as a result of climate change.

So there’s a lot of research that’s needed, even on the nature-based solutions side. People want to implement now, but often they overlook the fact that we’re not quite sure how best to implement. But we just know that we need to be investing in that research and doing as much implementation as we can now.

The other thing about nature-based solutions is there is a limit as to how much of a climate solution they provide. I said it was about a third of a degree off peak warming, but that’s up until the end of the century. When all the land that could be covered in an ethical and sustainable way is covered with nature in various forms, that’s that. We can’t increase the size of the planet. We can’t increase the land surface area. So there is a limit.

By the end of the century, we need a lot of hard core technology in place to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and to figure out ways of storing it for the long-term. So there’s an enormous amount of work that’s needed there. We need to do a lot now, and nature can really help us. So we need to invest in nature now. And of course, in investing in nature, we know now we’ll also secure all sorts of other very important ecosystems services that will help us deal with the impacts of climate change or support livelihoods. We can get the economies going in many countries because of the job creation potential that they have.

Stone: There’s one other point that really stood out in some of the reading I was doing prior to our conversation, and that is that if the climate warms too much, some of these solutions won’t be viable at all, or they’ll be much less viable. Potentially carbon dioxide sinks become sources of carbon dioxide.

Seddon: Yes.

Stone: Tell me a little bit more about that if you would.

Seddon: Absolutely. This is really important, and it goes back to my comment earlier. You can’t get your 27% of climate solution afforded by nature unless you also get your 73% from keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Because if we don’t keep those fossil fuels in the ground, we don’t bend the curve on emissions very, very quickly. Climate warming, and the effects of climate warming — so the increased intensity and frequency of fire, for example — will damage the biospheres. It will undermine the capacity of the biosphere of the forests of our grasslands or our coastal ecosystems to be a net sink for carbon dioxide.

So as forests and as your other ecosystems grow — your grasses, your wetlands, your kelp forests — as they all grow, and as they are creating biomass, so they are creating structures, they are absorbing more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than they are emitting it through respiration. We have to remember that plants breathe, like we do. They respire. So they also emit carbon dioxide. And so you get to a point in an ecosystem where it’s at equilibrium. And so that’s a factor, as well.

So once so many ecosystems have reached their equilibrium, they will be net zero, so to speak. But the bigger problem is that fires and floods and droughts and these types of activities combined with all the things that we’re doing to the biosphere — habitat fragmentation, pollution, disease, invasive species — all of these things act together. It’s a perfect storm. It’s very bad for the biosphere, and it erodes its capacity to deliver ecosystem services. And it can shift the balance between being a net sink, to a net source of carbon dioxide. Because what we want to avoid at all costs is releasing of so much carbon in the biosphere. We need to ensure that that stays locked in.

We need to protect the peatlands. We need to manage the tundra so that the permafrost doesn’t melt so quickly. And that speaks also to complex interventions around herbivores and so on. I probably don’t want to go into that in this conversation, but there’s a lot we need to be getting on doing in terms of sustainably managing our ecosystems to try and avoid the biosphere actually exacerbating the problem. And that’s all about how we use the ecosystem. It’s also fundamentally about how quickly we can get to zero emissions.

Stone: So then given the need to act quickly, what types of nature-based solutions are most cost effective and might merit prioritized attention and investment right off the bat?

Seddon: Well, instead of talking about planting more trees, what we need to do is protect our intact ecosystems. We need to protect our peatland — all that peatland in the Congo, all the peatland in the UK — as well as oversee all growth of tropical forests. That’s incredibly important, not just for carbon, but also for biodiversity and livelihoods. Protect what we’ve got is number one. So look at the ecosystems that we’ve got, and start now. We are still losing horrendous amounts of tropical rain forests every year. Some of that rain forest, ironically, has been lost to tree plantation establishments. Much of it, though, is being lost to industrial agriculture, and a lot of it has been lost as industrial animal agriculture. So that then speaks to all the stuff about systemic change and dietary change and so forth.

But protecting what we’ve got is not a simple thing to do because of the systemic change it necessitates. It’s nonetheless an absolutely essential thing to do. So protect what we’ve got. Number one. Whatever it is — tropical forests, peatlands, natural grasslands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows — protect it. The second most important thing to do is manage our working lands. There are about 4.1 billion hectares of very, very poorly managed, degraded working land, so agricultural lands for livestock, as well as crops. A lot of that is very, very poorly managed and generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. With more sustainable farming practices, many of which are sort of nature-based solutions — agroforestry and so forth. If we do that, that has a hugely important impact on greenhouse gas emissions from the land.

And then we get to the third category, which is restore what we’ve lost. Obviously we can’t restore everything, because we do need to produce foods. We do need to live in settlements. There’s no question we can’t restore everything, but we can certainly restore a lot of the land in certain parts of the world. There are always trade-offs with agriculture and other needs for land.

But that’s the order: Protect what we’ve got. Manage our working lands much more sustainably. And restore what we’ve lost. And then once we’ve done all that, let’s maybe talk about tree planting as a separate activity. Obviously tree planting native species is part of restoration, but actually tree planting in areas that don’t naturally have trees is not a priority in terms of a climate solution. I hope that answers your question.

Stone: That’s so interesting because again, there’s been so much focus recently in this country about planting trees. But you’re saying that’s a little bit down the road, right? We really need to focus on preserving what we have. That’s the immediate priority, it sounds like.

Seddon: Yes, and some of that is protecting trees, because that’s protecting your old growth forests — existing trees. Or planting trees where trees belong as part of restoration programs. But afforestation, planting trees on grasslands or in areas that don’t naturally have trees — that isn’t really a part of it. It’s sort of easy and tractable, and people love trees. They can see them, and they can plant them. And there are also business returns through commercial forestry, which is a big incentive. But actually, it’s very low on the list in terms of nature-based climate priorities, yes.

Stone: It sounds like these plantations could change whole ecosystems. Let me ask you a final question here, if I may. In the United States, the Biden administration has targeted the protection and restoration of nature-based infrastructure as part of its 2 trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. You’re in the UK, but are there priorities that come to mind for how the US administration might invest this money, if it does, indeed, end up doing so?

Seddon: That’s a great question. This is extremely welcome. When you actually go to the details of the plan, you find all the stuff you need to see from the perspective of the scientists. The actual terms are around maximizing the resilience of land and water resources. So I’m very happy to see that resilience is being highlighted, because as I say, that’s absolutely critical. And the emphasis is to protect communities and environments. So there in the language, we’re not separating people from nature, but we’re actually saying that there are communities in the environment, and we need this nature-based infrastructure that’s about protecting both.

The pledge goes on to say that the protection will be around “lands, forests, wetlands, watersheds, coastal and ocean resources.” So that’s also music to my ears, in the sense that there’s no talk here of trillions of trees. Instead, it’s reflecting that there’s a diversity of ecosystems, including oceans. We’ve not talked about oceans, but oceans and coastal ecosystems are an incredibly important part of the story. And that’s reflected in the language of this.

Also reflected in the language is that it’s around empowering local leaders to shape restoration and resilience projects. So that’s everything that we’ve been saying. So if you’d asked me that, and I hadn’t known what the substance of the text was, I would have said, “Well, let’s think about empowering local communities, restoring a wide range of ecosystems, talking about resilience.” Connectivity between ecosystems is an actual thing to think about. But it is all there, if there is that sort of high-level pledge that can be operationalized in the way that that language suggests it will, then that could be transformational.

Stone: Nathalie, thanks for talking.

Seddon: It was wonderful to be here. Thank you.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Nathalie Seddon of Oxford University’s Nature-Based Solutions Initiative. For more energy and climate insights, visit the Kleinman Center’s website, where you’ll find a wealth of research, news, and information on upcoming virtual events. You can get updates from the center by signing up for our monthly newsletter on our website or by following us on Twitter. Our handle is @KleinmanEnergy. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day. 


Nathalie Seddon

Professor, University of Oxford
Nathalie Seddon is a professor of biodiversity at the University of Oxford and founding director of the Nature-based Solutions Initiative. Seddon is a 2020-2021 Kleinman Center Visiting Scholar.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.