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News Nov 8, 2021

Renewing Society’s Relationship with Nature

Renewing Society’s Relationship with Nature

Out now! We’ve teamed up with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for The Geographer Special COP26 Edition. In an article for this special series, Jacobs’ Associate Director of Sustainability (Natural Capital), Penny Borton, and Sustainability Consultant in Natural Capital Approaches, Darren Grafius discuss the need for a renewed and active focus on society’s relationship with nature, and how to practically identify opportunities.

It is now widely accepted that humanity faces a climate emergency. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC1) has heightened current awareness of the severity of the threat and the ever-worsening consequences of insufficient action.

Since the pre-industrial period, the average surface temperature of the Earth has risen by 1°C2 and atmospheric CO2 levels by 50%3. Concurrent with this is an associated ecological crisis. In the UK alone, a quarter of mammal species are under threat of extinction4. Yet in our well-intended response, our handling of one crisis may neglect another. For example, climate change mitigation efforts may focus on the protection of high-carbon ecosystems whilst overlooking biodiversity value. As such, biodiversity and climate objectives may be in poor agreement or even conflict. Increasingly, our planet is in desperate need of solutions with co-benefits for climate mitigation, biodiversity and wider natural capital gains.

Working with natural systems to address societal challenges and provide benefits for both human wellbeing and biodiversity, nature-based solutions can provide cost-effective approaches to mitigating and adapting to climate change. They offer the possibility of “win-win” scenarios that address climate goals while preserving or enhancing biodiversity. Biodiversity underpins the value we gain from the natural environment, including carbon storage and sequestration, so effective management is essential.

A growing consensus among scientists, practitioners and policy makers has identified the potential for nature-based solutions to play a major role in achieving net-zero targets5. Reaching net-zero – a state where all greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere are offset by equal or greater amounts of removal from the atmosphere – is a matter of both emission reduction and removals.

An example of nature-based emissions reductions could be the restoration of degraded peatlands, lessening COemissions. Emission removals could include the creation of new woodlands which absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it within tree biomass and soils. Carbon reductions and removals are both crucial for responding to the threats posed by climate change, addressing the gap between decarbonization efforts and net-zero targets, whilst providing additional ecosystem services to society.

The importance of blue carbon, carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems, is an increasing area of focus owing to the potential for significant carbon storage capacity. These ecosystems are frequently biodiversity hot spots and can store carbon at a greater density than terrestrial forests but can be fragile and easily degraded6. As such, they represent important mechanisms for the management of both the climate and ecological crises, whilst also providing wider societal benefits.

England's Environment Agency sees multiple benefits from nature-based solutions

At the center of many projects harnessing nature-based solutions to meet net-zero targets is the question of how to practically identify opportunities. England’s Environment Agency has committed to a 2030 net-zero carbon target consisting of a 45% reduction in emissions, with remaining emissions to be addressed by carbon offsetting7. To identify the most effective and practical nature-based offsetting methods, Jacobs has been working with the Environment Agency in North West England to develop a robust site-selection model to find suitable sites for habitat restoration and creation which provide carbon offset benefits. Together we are working with stakeholders to identify partnership working opportunities and prioritize them based on a multi-criteria analysis, to derive the greatest social value.

David Brown, Senior Flood Risk Management Advisor with the Environment Agency, said: “The Environment Agency’s flood defense program is a fantastic example of adaptation in action and can be seen by those attending the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

“Using nature-based solutions in combination with other measures such as traditional engineered flood and coastal defenses, is one way we are driving down flood risk, and reducing our carbon footprint. The multiple benefits we see from nature-based solutions is an important part of the long-term vision set out in our Flood and Coastal Risk Management Strategy - ensuring today’s growth and infrastructure is resilient to tomorrow’s climate.”

Diverse and equitable benefits

Nature-based solutions are a relatively new approach, and so face several challenges to adoption, including reliability and cost-effectiveness. However, recent research in multiple contexts has indicated that diverse benefits far outweigh implementation and management costs. Current evidence for cost-effectiveness also shows a tendency to underestimate ecosystem service benefits.

Additionally, the interdisciplinary character of nature-based solutions and the equitable sharing of benefits between multiple stakeholders can raise questions of ownership. While this may require adjustment from conventional approaches, cooperation and shared investment between organizations, communities and governments should be encouraged. While proven examples are limited, this highlights the novelty of nature-based solutions and makes this the right time to explore them and reap the benefits8.

Out of COP26 there must be a renewed and active focus on society’s relationship with nature. Faced with the need to meet net-zero targets and preserve an ecologically threatened world, it is upon us all to commit to solutions that offer a sustainable path toward achieving both.

Image: Jeremy Halls







10 Seddon Nathalie, Chausson Alexandre, Berry Pam, Girardin Cécile A. J., Smith Alison and Turner Beth 2020. Understanding the value and limits of nature-based solutions to climate change and other global challenges. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B37520190120