Nature-based solutions for protecting environment

Uday Kumar Varma

The challenges both physical and perceptional, of saving the environment are profound and pernicious. But a more formidable impediment is to objectively assess the global strategies to meet a crisis gaining in severity by the day. Dominated by a thinking and advocacy that seems to favour the continuing advantage that developed nations enjoy, we have a scenario where there is more focus on mitigation than adaptation, more on construction than changing our behaviour. Our Prime Minister hinted at it while addressing COP at Glasgow recently. Nature Based Solutions (NBSs) offer a superior alternative, in fact eco-strategy, to tackle the ongoing degradation. There is a need to talk and discuss more about the relevance and necessity of these solutions; and to  evaluate and advocate their adoption far more vigorously.

World Environment Day was observed just a few months ago with more than usual fanfare and ostensible concern. There were platitudes galore. It wasn’t surprising that most of the high-sounding statements were as hollow as they were insincere. The articulation of specialised knowledge patently manifested in articles and discourses reminded one of the description of an elephant in the poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe (who called it a ‘Hindoo’ fable). Their erudition emphasised the splendid isolation of their respective fields delivered with uncommon competence.

A few initiatives, however, merit attention, consideration and support. Save the Soil Campaign led by Sadguru claims to focus on soil rejuvenation, and crop productivity enhancement for sustainable and environment friendly practices – a literal down-to-earth effort for adaptation and soil restoration. The campaign, importantly, is more about changing our perspective and attitudes. Another notable thought was contained in the Indian Prime Minister’s address in COP26 at Glasgow. ‘One-Word, in the context of climate, can become the basic foundation of One World. This word is- LIFE…L, I, F, E, which means Lifestyle for Environment. Today, there is a need for all of us to come together and take Lifestyle For Environment (LIFE) forward as a campaign’

This can become a mass movement of Environmental Conscious Life Style. What is needed today is Mindful and Deliberate Utilization, instead of Mindless and Destructive Consumption.”, he said. The lasting solution rests with our behaviour and the urgency to moderate it.

This brings into sharper focus the immediacy to rely more on Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) in our endeavour to deal with climate changes.

I intend to argue the necessity, a pressing one, to accord precedence to NBSs.

Nature-Based Solutions and Natural Climate Solutions

The terms NBS and Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) are often but mistakenly used interchangeably. NCS focuses primarily on carbon dioxide mitigation and maximising its co-benefits. NBS is a far more comprehensive term. As defined by the European Commission, NBS are “inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social, and economic benefits and help build resilience.” It encompasses broader challenges including issues such as climate change, water scarcity, water pollution, food security, human health, biodiversity loss and disaster risk management. It refers to the sustainable management and use of natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges. In other words, NBS treats the problem holistically and is both mitigation and adaptation and at once material and inspirational, physical and intellectual, backed by a moral and popular participation. The inter-connections and inter-relations among all factors that affect environment is a key principle.

Green Roofs, Rain Gardens, Constructed Wetlands can minimise damaging runoff by absorbing storm water, reducing flood risks, and safeguarding fresh water ecosystem. This is one example of a NBS as opposed to engineering solutions that focus on construction of concrete walls to protect habitations from ravages of floods.

Adaptation versus mitigation

Adaptation and mitigation serve different purposes. Adaptation is long term, its impact is almost permanent, and it addresses the root cause of crisis. Mitigation is short term, cost-intensive and temporary; as the term suggests, it mitigates the problem and does not offer a lasting solution. The emphasis so far has been mostly on mitigation, or at least the flow of resources indicates that. Instead, it is important to bring adaptation to centre stage as the core of the strategy. If environmental protection is to become a people’s movement, it has to place adaptation on top of our priority pedestal.

With billions of people potentially in harm’s way as climate change negatively accelerates, the stakes for making a success of nature-based adaptation and mitigation are immense. Following the Glasgow promises to ramp up funding for adaptation, I wish to argue for a preference for these solutions as opposed to engineering solutions involving mostly constructions and creation of structures.

NBS can help people adapt to effects of change and disasters while slowing warming and protecting biodiversity, with many positive consequences, fewer risks and lower costs than engineering-based solutions. So, nature-based initiatives such as planting mangroves and revitalizing wetlands have not only succeeded in tackling flood and water scarcity, but have also proven effective in making communities more resilient to climate change.

Why are nature-based solutions on climate being overlooked?

Regrettably international funding has short-changed such solutions in favour of costlier and less efficient engineering projects. Engineering-based solutions requiring mostly constructions have dominated our thinking and action. If floods are ravaging an area, the solution is building up embankments of concrete. While their role cannot be written off or diminished, the plea is to prefer and accord NBSs higher priority.

Studies reveal that less than 10 percent of funding for climate adaptation in the least-developed nations — which are usually the most vulnerable — went into projects that harnessed nature. The remaining 90 percent only “poured concrete”. The reason for this preference is not far to seek. Most funding for climate mitigation are received from developed nations. And it is substantially ploughed back to the funder by way of expert consultancies, and specialised construction work whose expertise lies with the donor countries. So, there is a hidden purpose behind the assistance that is forthcoming. A farce everyone knows but a bluff few are able to call.

A pointer to this flawed orientation of evaluating efforts on environmental protection is the recently released Environment Protection Index (EPI). India ranks the last among the 180 countries ranked. Brought out by Columbia and Yale Universities, the assumptions that form the basis of such ranking reflect the bias that researchers have for measures that suit the interest of developed nations.

Another factor behind such approach is over obsession with perpetuating and sustaining, even enhancing the prevailing levels of affluence and comfort that developed nations enjoy, unwilling to forego or reduce their craving for more. Ironically, they succeed in clothing their interest in a manner that seem to be helping the world at large. In essence, they will like to continue enjoying a safe and salubrious slice of environment while the sacrifices must come from the poorer nations.

One thing though, is evident. We behave as if we are the last generation living on this planet, not wanting to leave behind anything for future. The concern for the benefits of development to continue for generations requires in the least, measured exploitation of resources leaving enough for future. This eminently obvious fact often gets obfuscated by the human greed, unwillingness to give up anything and the hunger for more comfort. Regrettably, any mention of economising on the resources by reducing demand is deemed anti-development. The continuation of this mindless exploitation will ensure a perdition few will survive to rue.

Need to bring NBSS centre-stage

Clearly NBSs offer long term but lasting solutions. And most importantly they involve people. Each one of them requires massive participation of the populations affected.

It indeed is the solution that we want. We want environmental protection to become a mass movement, not esoteric domains where only experts and specialists, whether from sciences, economics, or politics, or in a lighter vein the polluticians deliberate and decide. Once the nature based solution becomes our priority, the save planet mission become universal, ubiquitous. It becomes a movement for the people, of the people and by the people.

The spin off effects are multiple and immense. Take for example, its effect on employment. All countries, in varying degrees, face this problem. All nature based adaptation and mitigation strategies evidently become a massive employment generation programme.

Lastly, nature based mediation inhere the concern for environment in our thinking and growth process. Every action, individual or collective, local or national, will lead to a better development as it will automatically incorporate the impact on air, water, humidity, temperature of our environment as necessary outcomes. This will be a far superior, balanced and saner approach while formulating our development strategies.

Yes, it will be slow and will require time, patience, involvement, wisdom and also sacrifice. These are the most intractable intangibles for an impatient people in a particularly difficult time. As entrenched interests dig their heels, the hope lies in the leadership- non-partisan, visionary, courageous and committed.

Regrettably, this is one thing that is sorely missing. On the contrary, there is a concerted and more intense and serious effort to let the status quo continue.

Who then will lead the charge to rewrite the rules of engagement?

There are no answers! At least for the present!

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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