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Harnessing Nature to Build Climate Resilience: Scaling Up the Use of Ecosystem-based Adaptation

Discover the role of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) in helping societies globally adapt to climate change; the current trends in EbA's implementation; and how EbA can be successfully applied in both policy and practice.
A man and a woman carrying a sack
Enhancing climate change resilience of rural communities living in protected areas of Cambodia. © UNEP / Hannah McNeish

Introduction

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) has the potential to significantly enhance the resilience of society to climate change and could be a key part of national and global adaptation efforts. However, despite growing interest among policymakers, donors, scientists and practitioners, the current pace and scale of EbA implementation falls far short of its potential. The aim of this report is to highlight the opportunities for scaling up the use of EbA to help put the world on a more climate-resilient and nature-positive pathway.

The report begins by examining the role of EbA in helping society adapt to climate change, while also contributing to biodiversity conservation, climate mitigation and sustainable development efforts. It assesses the current state and trends in EbA implementation. Next, it explores the barriers that are currently slowing the widespread application of EbA in policy and practice. Finally, the report provides a set of recommendations on how to enhance the scale and pace of EbA implementation to more fully harness the potential of ecosystems to deliver adaptation benefits. Throughout the report, the term “ecosystem-based adaptation” is treated as equivalent to nature-based solutions (NbS) for adaptation, in line with the recent definition of NbS by the United Nations (United Nations Environment Assembly [UNEA] 2022).

This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

Methodology

The report draws on a detailed literature review and consultations with EbA experts. We examined more than 750 documents (including scientific and technical articles, websites, policy reports, case studies and blogs) related to EbA implementation, finance and policy development. We also solicited ideas and feedback from 59 EbA experts from 30 institutions through interviews and a detailed peer review process. The full list of experts who contributed to the report can be found in the acknowledgements section.

Building resilience to climate change

  • EbA can be defined as the use of ecosystems and biodiversity as part of a broader adaptation strategy to help people adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. It involves the active conservation, restoration and management of ecosystems to foster climate resilience.
  • Common examples of EbA measures include the conservation or restoration of mangroves to protect coastal communities from storm surges and sea level rise, the establishment of green roofs, street trees and urban parks to reduce the risks of heatwaves and flooding in cities, and the conservation of upslope forests to prevent landslides and downstream flooding under extreme weather events.
  • EbA measures can be applied in a wide range of socioecological settings (from coastal zones to cities to mountains) and can meet the adaptation needs of a diverse set of sectors and stakeholders.
  • While EbA is a versatile and widely applicable approach, there are some limitations to its use.

Refer to pages 21-32 of the report for a more detailed introduction to EbA measures.

Current status and trends in ecosystem-based adaptation policy, practice and finance

  • Understanding the current status and trends in EbA implementation is difficult because data on EbA practice, policy and finance are incomplete, scattered and insufficiently detailed.
  • Nevertheless, our assessment of available information (databases, publications, websites and reports) suggests that there is already substantial EbA action under way. There are at least several thousand EbA initiatives being implemented across the world, with support from a diverse suite of actors, including United Nations organizations, bilateral and multilateral development agencies, multilateral development banks and funds, international NGOs, research organizations, national governments, local communities and the private sector.​
  • Our assessment also suggests that the pace of EbA activity is increasing, albeit at a slow rate.
  • The current level of EbA implementation falls far short of its potential. The number of EbA initiatives under way, while significant, is too little to have a meaningful impact on the hundreds of millions of people who are threatened by climate change.
  • In short, there is a growing consensus that EbA can play a much greater role in global adaptation efforts.
Large scale ecosystem-based adaptation in the Gambia: developing a climate-resilient natural resource-based economy. © UNEP / GCF / Hannah McNeishaption

Learn more about the current trends in the use of EbA on pages 42-61 of the report.

Barriers to the use of ecosystem-based adaptation

Our review of the scientific and technical literature suggests there are multiple barriers that are hindering the widespread adoption and scaling up of EbA:

  • Lack of awareness and understanding of the role of ecosystem conservation, restoration and sustainable management in fostering climate resilience.
  • Lack of sufficient knowledge and information for scaling up EbA. Despite a rapidly growing evidence base, many policymakers, donors and practitioners lack the necessary information to design and implement EbA.
  • Inadequate technical capacity is another key constraint. Policymakers and local authorities often lack staff with the necessary technical skills to effectively design, implement and mainstream EbA into relevant policies, plans and investments.
  • Lack of sufficient political and public support. Without strong political leadership and public support, it is difficult to raise the profile of EbA, secure funding, mainstream EbA into policies, regulations and budgets, and mobilize action and collaboration across diverse institutions, governance levels and stakeholders.
  • Lack of clear institutional arrangements and collaboration among the multiple government departments, institutions and sectors that are involved in ecosystem conservation, restoration and sustainable management.
  • The lack of supportive policies and regulations can also slow EbA implementation. Since EbA is a fairly new approach, it has not yet been fully integrated into relevant national policies, sectoral strategies, regulations and related budgets.
  • Financial challenges are also commonly encountered by EbA initiatives. The main challenge is thelack of sufficient funding from both the public sector and the private sector to support EbA at scale.
  • A final challenge is the fact that most EbA interventions require that space be set aside for the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of ecosystems for climate adaptation.

For more on barriers, explore pages 63-80 of the report.

Lessons Learnt

Based on our analysis and discussions with EbA experts from around the world, we suggest that there are five broad categories of action that could help overcome many of the current barriers to EbA and ramp up the pace and scale of EbA implementation globally. These are:

1. Creating a supportive policy and regulatory framework –Policy and regulatory frameworks are important because they reflect government priorities, determine which actions can be undertaken and guide the allocation of public technical and financial resources.

2. Using innovative policy and regulatory instruments to promote EbA –If designed and implemented appropriately, such policy instruments can help to increase awareness of the importance of EbA, encourage its widespread use by both the public and private sectors, and channel greater levels of funds towards EbA implementation.

3. Increasing the number of actors supporting EbA –The effective design and implementation of EbA requires collaboration among a large and diverse suite of stakeholders and entails both bottom-up and top-down action. However, to date, most of the action has been led by national and local governments, international public funders, international and national NGOs and the research community.

4. Using innovative approaches to finance EbA – While most funding for EbA continues to stem from public budgets and international assistance, there are increasing opportunities to use new innovative mechanisms to attract greater public and private investment. These innovative finance mechanisms may tap into new sources of funds, blend different sources of funds, de-risk private sector investments or develop novel ways to unlock funds for the conservation, management and restoration of ecosystems for climate resilience.

5. Targeting EbA implementation to the contexts where the greatest benefits will likely accrue– Decisions about whether, how, where and which EbA measures to include in adaptation initiatives for a given location should be based on a detailed, spatially explicit analysis of climate risks, stakeholder vulnerabilities and adaptation needs, potential adaptation measures, and numbers of potential beneficiaries. While the specific priority areas for EbA will differ from one country to the next, there are three contexts where EbA implementation holds particular promise for delivering adaptation benefits at scale.

To explore these recommendations in more detail, refer to pages 82-111 of the report.

Conclusion

There is significant scope for EbA to play a much greater role in putting the world on a more climate resilient and nature-positive pathway. In order to harness the full potential of EbA, it is critical to accelerate both the pace and scale of EbA action.

We recognize that these recommendations are ambitious and that their implementation will require tremendous effort, political will, and significant financial and human resources. Scaling up will take time and success is not guaranteed. However, inaction is not an option. Without rapid and significant adaptation action, climate change will have increasingly devastating impacts on human communities, natural ecosystems and economies worldwide. Ambitious and rapid action on EbA is needed on many fronts and by many stakeholders if we are to put the world on a more climate-resilient and nature-positive pathway.

Suggested Citation:

United Nations Environment Programme (2022). Harnessing Nature to Build Climate Resilience: Scaling Up the Use of Ecosystem-based Adaptation. Nairobi.

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