In recent initiatives of coping with the challenge of climate change and designing sustainable economies and societies, ‘nature-based solutions’ NBS have become a buzzword. Broadly speaking, this term refers to all sorts of alternatives to techno-engineering (‘grey’) measures directed at adapting and mitigating the impact of climate change which intentionally activate and strengthen ecosystems or engineer natural systems for human purposes. For example, growing forests helps carbon sequestration, or greening urban environments helps to dampen the temperature increases in cities resulting from global warming. This envisages synergies of human societies and nature, as a ‘win-win’: If you grow natural forests (and not just commercial monocultures), this enhances biodiversity and offers healthy environments for human visitors, beyond the narrower function of carbon sequestration.
However, recent reviews of NBS have revealed two problems.
The first is that as long as NBS are only considered on a project base, there is a risk that because of complex non-linearities of systemic impacts the necessary scale is not achieved, and related to this, that interdependencies between different projects are not activated. For example, dotting the urban landscape with parks may not add up to sufficient scale of tree canopy to achieve the desired dampening effect on average temperatures. Or, parks may just be isolated and truncated biotopes lacking connectivity to larger ecosystems, and may be haphazardly designed, without establishing an integrated urban ecosystem with sufficient scale to support biodiversity and create evolutionary potential for adapting to climate change.
The second problem is insufficient funding, which relates to the complex stakeholder contexts and governance issues, eventually blocking incentives for providing the sufficient means for project implementation. In other words, NBS can be difficult to ‘sell’, since natural systems often defy clear assignments in functions, as defined by human interests, such that they fall ‘between the chairs’, or get stuck in conflicts of interests.
I think that the second problem suggests that NBS may be eventually colonized by the technosphere, as mere bio-engineered extensions. A stylized case in point is greening urban infrastructure, inspired by a vision of ‘garden cities’. Yes, this may partly neutralize the impact of global warming on urban populations, with all kinds of desirable effects on health and well-being. But at the same time, this would even further strengthen the attraction of cities, thus leveraging global trends of urban concentration. Urban growth causes many negative externalities, is a driver of regional disparities, and is energy intensive, even if efficient. In other words, the NBS may contribute to system-level rebound effects, further pushing urban hyper-growth that would actually increase pressure on NBS solutions. This can be further broken down to meso-level effects. Evaluation of urban NBS projects has shown that they can be usurped by market forces, thus producing unintended effects on low-income and vulnerable groups. For example, greening an urban problem area may induce gentrification in the long run, because of enhanced attractiveness, pushing real estate prices and rents up and up.
That means, the functionality of NBS is deeply shaped by the systemic interdependencies; the intentions of benevolent planners may not count much, at the end of the day. The economics of funding and implementing NBS, together with market responses and the workings of externalities, conditions their colonization by the technosphere and its economic core, the capitalist dynamics. What can be done?
Right from the onset of the NBS movement, researchers emphasized that they remain deeply anthropocentric and geared towards human interests. Hence, I think that a geocentric turn is necessary in conceptualizing NBS: ‘Nature’ would become the beacon for project design (which I use as a purely rhetorical move here). For example, when designing urban parks, we could envisage to embed the urban landscape into a comprehensive and integral design of an ecosystem, rooted in pre-existing structures and biota. No NBS without a ‘nature-centred master plan’! That does not preclude human interests: we would not define these in economic terms, but in terms of a broad understanding of ‘health’, as a flourishing of human nature. That would transform the idea of ‘nature’ as an ‘object’ to be exploited for human purposes into a wellspring of co-creative relations, with humans as a part of nature.
The other important countervailing force is to balance the economic aspects by concerns for environmental justice. That means, in designing, evaluating and selecting NBS we must always consider and involve the groups in society who are directly or indirectly affected by the NBS, and who might not have the means to cope with unintended effects of the NBS. Just take the case of gentrification again, as a consequence of greening an urban district: Groups are vulnerable if they would eventually be forced out of their home area, to other settlements not yet enjoying the blessings of NBS. Whereas the previous argument relates to design principles of NBS, this argument aims at containing the capitalist dynamics.
The great challenge to NBS is that the ‘business case’ or ‘policy case’ for NBS, as ingenious they might be, triggers a re-interpretation and appropriation by actors who ultimately pursue economic interests as defined by the hegemonial economic system. This is a catch-22, because without mobilizing these actors, the NBS might not materialize at all.