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Framing “nature-based” solutions to climate change

July 27, 2021
News item image The framing of natural solutions must be broadened out to more diverse representations and “opened up” to critical reflection.

Osaka et al. 2021

This paper explores the framing, definitions, and context of  “nature-based” or “natural” solutions in the protection, conservation, restoration, management, enhancement, or imitation of natural ecosystems, and in both mitigating and adapting to climate change. The framing of particular solutions as “natural” or “unnatural” has far-reaching implications for climate policy, but has thus far been overlooked.

There is a long history of “natural” or “ecosystem-based” solutions to climate change, including ‘ecosystem services’ from the 1980’s onward, ‘nature-based solutions’ from the late 2000’s, and most recently ‘natural climate solutions’ from the late 2010’s. Natural solutions to climate change are currently represented by connected but distinct terms:  “nature-based solutions” (NbS) and “natural climate solutions” (NCS). When investigating what counts as a natural solution to climate change, it becomes clear there is no singular, external, nonhuman nature – the concept is socially constructed, and therefore imbued with particular socio-political meanings in specific contexts.

The study also examines the framing of natural solutions under different technical and social appraisal criteria. Using a systematic strategy to review this in academic and other literature, four dominant framings of natural solutions were found; implicitly or explicitly contrasted with “unnatural” solutions. These were 1) more co-benefits; 2) more cost-effective; 3) more feasible; and 4) more decentralised and democratic. By assigning “natural” to a particular policy or action, and hence implying others are “unnatural”, attention is diverted from the actual qualities of a policy in place of a general sense of the “goodness” or “rightness”.

Such framings of NbS and NCS may hold in some instances, but the study reveals that it is difficult to unpick which policies or actions are truly adhering to these concepts, and which are simply implying a “natural” framework for its positive connotation. Therefore, projects framed as natural solutions may not be as desirable as they might first appear. Negative impacts may exceed the benefits, benefits may not match up with those claimed, there may be excessive costs, the status may be immature and speculative, and governance may be technocratic. Unnatural solutions may also not be as undesirable as implied, such as containing significant unacknowledged co-benefits; being more cost-effective, tested and mature, and having equal ability for implementation by decentralised governance.

The study then recommends that the framing of natural solutions must be broadened out to more diverse representations and “opened up” to critical reflection, both in terms of labeling and substantive appraisal. The study concludes with reflections on the dangers of narrowing the range of solutions considered natural, and of selecting solutions through association with “nature”. Instead, the researchers state that climate solutions must be evaluated in terms of their specific qualities, against a far broader range of framings.

Find out more in the full published article.