By Valerie Hickey and Habiba Gitay
At the 12th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity happening right now in Korea, there has been a lot of talk about adaptation. Most importantly, how can nature help countries and communities adapt to climate change?
Ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA), or using nature’s own defense characteristics to reduce the vulnerability of people and capital, is an essential component of climate-resilient development. EBA isn’t about how we can protect nature. It’s about how nature – through the ecosystem services that constitute EBA, be it flood protection, water provision during droughts, or wave energy attenuation, among other things – can protect people and their capital.
We already know that we can’t eradicate extreme poverty without investing in nature because of the safety net she provides to families in the stubborn pockets of poverty at the rural frontier. Nor can we truly share prosperity with the bottom 40 percent unless we help them reap the benefits of what is often the only capital they have access to – natural capital. And now, climate change has given us another truism: We can’t eradicate extreme poverty or protect the development gains of the bottom 40 percent in the face of climate change, without investing in nature in a different way. And this is the first lesson that we are learning about EBA – it is not conservation as usual.
The success of EBA must be measured in how effectively it has enhanced the resilience of communities and their capital assets. It is about nature helping communities sustain their hard-fought economic gains and climate-proofing future development wins. This is what our investments in EBA through the Pilot Program on Climate Resilience are doing in Samoa and Zambia – we are using EBA to build a protective shell around communities that are vulnerable to coastal erosion, floods, and the loss of scarce freshwater resources. Yes, EBA delivers biodiversity benefits; but first and foremost, it must deliver real and timely benefits for vulnerable people and communities who rely on natural capital.
EBA is not a new idea. In many ways it is the archetype of the triple bottom line in action.
First and foremost, it provides vulnerable families and communities protection from the vicissitudes and cruelties of a world that is experiencing a rapidly changing climate and a multitude of climate extremes. In a world where most of the poor live in rural areas, and live in dispersed, often remote communities, we know that other types of adaptation measures and infrastructure may never reach them. Islands simply don’t have the resources to ring-fence their entire sovereignty with high concrete sea-walls. Water-stressed countries don’t have the resources to channelize their scarce freshwater resources to support all small-holder agriculture. EBA is a cost-effective way to protect people against climate change, which reduces fiscal pressures on governments while accruing economic and environmental co-benefits.
This is the second lesson of EBA: While hard infrastructure depreciates over time, the benefits of nature-based approaches accrue value. Mangrove forests dampen wave energy, delivering adaptation benefits to coastal and island communities during storms. But over time they also provide nursery grounds for many fish species and critical habitat for marine biodiversity, allowing communities and countries to reap the food security, economic benefits and jobs from improving artisanal and industrial fishing.
But EBA is not a cure-all. While we know a lot about how ecosystems function, we don’t know enough about how they provide ecosystem services, including those that are critical to climate resilient development. Under what conditions will EBA work best? What are the ecological tipping points beyond which ecosystems stop functioning and helping people adapt to climate change? As we learn more about how to optimize EBA, we must embed EBA approaches within broader development strategies. We must employ multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approaches at multiple scales across time and space. And most importantly, we must interweave traditional and indigenous knowledge about local ecosystems and how they work into development decisions. This is the third lesson about EBA: Since we don’t know enough about how they work, we must apply them only with the informed and active participation of those communities and countries we are asking to trust in them.
We are investing in EBA, and the delegates at the COP are discussing EBA, because it must be part of our adaptive response to climate change. This is the fourth lesson of EBA: It can and must co-exist with other approaches to adaptation to give countries and communities every opportunity to confront a world that is experiencing climate change. Each approach to adaptation strengthens the other. Greening hard infrastructure will make it last longer and go further. Engineering green infrastructure will make it more effective and help us optimize the delivery of adaptation benefits. In a rapidly changing world where the rural poor are heavily dispersed and countries and communities have limited resources, a full adaptation toolbox that includes EBA is the surest salve to reduce vulnerability and enhance resiliency.