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Spotlight on social equity, finance and scale: Promises and pitfalls of nature-based solutions

Explore the equity, financial, and scalar dimensions of nature-based solutions (NbS) in this introductory brief; the first piece in a four-part series that critically analyses NbS and highlights key gaps in the existing literature.
Multiple Authors
green and brown mangrove forest leaning over a channel of water
Protected ecological carbon capture mangrove in Everglade City, Florida. Photo: Marie Hickman/ Getty Images.

Introduction

The key levers of change for our seas and coasts revolve around the need for an integrated climate, biodiversity and development agenda. “Nature-based solutions’ (NbS) are sometimes referred to as physical measures to protect, manage and restore these ecosystems that also address societal challenges in sustainable ways and bring biodiversity benefits. NbS are increasingly seen as an important piece of the puzzle for delivering upon multiple and sometimes contradictory goals. But beyond the promises of this win-win discourse, what are the potential pitfalls of NbS and what questions should we be looking at to overcome them?

2020 saw an explosion in publications about NbS, which have contributed to filling many of the knowledge gaps that existed around their effectiveness and factors for their success. These publications have also highlighted the knowledge gaps that remain and have revealed a lack of critical reflection on the social and economic sustainability aspects of NbS. Building on these gaps, we decided to launch a mini-series of four briefs – of which this is the first – to provoke a more nuanced discussion that highlights not only the potential benefits, but also the potential risks and tradeoffs of NbS. The purpose is not to downplay the importance of NbS for biodiversity, ecosystems, and coastal mitigation and adaptation, but to ensure that we establish a dialogue about ways to overcome these challenges while leaving no one behind.

In this brief we introduce the three themes – equity, scale, and finance – which we will dwell upon in more depth in the subsequent briefs, each of which examines one of the themes.

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.

Social Equity

Much of the research has adopted a technocentric view when it comes to the implementation of NbS,pointing to their success factors and potential to provide multiple benefits. However, little attention has been given to questioning the sorts of power-knowledge relationships mobilized and reinforced through the propagation and implementation of NbS.

The mobilization of a specific understanding of nature through NbS is aided by the ambiguity of the discourse, which turns NbS into easily adaptive, flexible tools that can serve distinct agendas. NbS are intended to produce positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes. Yet, the recognition that solutions will not automatically be equally beneficial for all across geographies, timescales and social groups is seldom made explicit or explored in depth.

Therefore, those promoting and implementing NbS need to account for social contexts, including the historical marginalization and political capabilities of different groups, and proactively seek to contribute to equality goals. Meaningful participation, stakeholder engagement, transparent decision-making and accountability for solutions are important components of such approaches.

Explore these discussion points further in the ‘Principles for just and equitable nature-based solutions’ brief in the SEI series.

Finance

Justice and equity are elements that are rarely problematized in discussions around the funding and financing of NbS. As discussed in the previous section, the apolitical discourse around NbS fails to consider that they are not inherently socially just and that a range of issues associated with them must be critically evaluated, including how and why they are financed.

One aspect of finance in need of examination is the fact that the concept is often discursively mobilized in such a way as to privilege quantifiable benefits, profit, quick economic returns and growth within urban nature’s governance. The material implication of this discourse is that a market-driven governance of NbS tends to prioritize projects that serve high income groups. Thus, investments in NbS might instead cement or create new demographic inequalities and exacerbate gentrification. This raises the question of what the appropriate financing mechanisms for enabling “just NbS’” might be. We discuss this further in our upcoming Finance brief.

New financial mechanisms, such as green bonds, can enable NbS funding due to their benefits to mitigation and adaptation, as well as the other co-benefits they provide. However, due to the distribution of multiple benefits among many stakeholders, private sector actors may not be sufficiently incentivized to fund the implementation of adaptation solutions such as NbS, unless they themselves receive sufficient benefits or are guided to prioritize NbS through policies.

One business model that has been used to fund NbS is payment for ecosystem services (PES). Work by SEI in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, found that a system set up between downstream private sector actors, Water Resources Users’ Associations (WRUAs) and upstream farmers has incentivized farmers to implement soil conservation measures and deliver good quality water to downstream users who are willing to “pay for this ecosystem service”.

Read the SEI brief on ‘Assessing finance for nature-based solutions to climate change’ for further details.

Scale

A debate is emerging about extending, linking or merging successful NbS case studies – often described as “scaling-up”. Despite increasing interest in mainstreaming NbS, little is known about the mechanisms and conditions necessary for scaling them up in practice. There is also a lack of knowledge as to how upscaling is understood and the optimal scales for application of NbS – both in terms of providing space for nature and, particularly, for ecological processes that confer resilience and promote biodiversity persistence, as well as in terms of the services provided for people and their equitable distribution.

  • Misinterpretation of scale can produce suboptimal outcomes for the resilience and sustainability of human-environmental systems.
  • Beyond space and time, there are a number of other scalar aspects to consider: jurisdictional aspects; institutional aspects; management aspects; networks; and knowledge.
  • Scale has implications for both finance and equity. Challenges in measuring or predicting the effectiveness of NbS lead to high uncertainty when it comes to their cost-effectiveness compared to alternatives.

Refer to SEI’s final brief in the series on ‘Addressing scale in nature-based solutions’ to explore these ideas further.

Conclusions

This brief is intended to initiate a discussion about the costs and benefits, and the social and economic sustainability implications of NbS. In response to identified knowledge gaps in the existing literature, the series’ overall aim is to critically explore these issues, as well as how to design just NbS that leave no one behind.

However, caution is needed to prevent us from creating yet another hegemonic discourse with little meaning and few mechanisms for implementation. Without clear definitions and principles, there is a risk that NbS will remain a buzzword amenable to different agendas, perhaps even being used to justify investments in projects that are not in the best interests of the communities in which they occur.

Discussions around finance need to better contemplate equity and scalar challenges. Critical approaches to finance are needed to reflect upon the actors and mechanisms that can ensure a more effective implementation of NbS without compromising on social and economic goals.

If NbS are to become a focus for international development work, then we badly need “non-Western” voices and approaches to nature to be given more of a platform and role in shaping the science and practice of them. Awareness also needs to be raised about the fact that the framing of “solutions” and “services” may be downplaying nature’s contributions, values and processes, which are not measured in the same terms by different societies and communities across the “global South” and “global North”.

Suggested Citation:

Barquet, K., Leander, E., Green, J., Tuhkanen, H., Omondi Odongo, V., Boyland, M., Fiertz, E.K., Escobar, M., Trujillo, M. and Osano, P. (2021). Spotlight on social equity, finance and scale: Promises and pitfalls of nature-based solutions. SEI brief. Stockholm Environment Institute. http://doi.org/10.51414/sei2021.011

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