Several years before the pandemic struck, ecologists and urban design experts across the world were pushing for cities to work on a green agenda. To find nature-based solutions (NbS) to cope with rising urbanisation and the corresponding impact on our surroundings, in terms of high pollution levels, diminishing green spaces, and the spread of diseases, to name a few.
Just like we seem to understand the importance of natural elements only when struck by a calamity, this time has been no different. With the world continuing to live under the dreary shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, the conversation around NbS for cities has taken centre-stage yet again, and for good measure.
Following a two-year global consultation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) launched its Global Standard for NbS in July 2020. Through public consultation reaching hundreds of stakeholders from 100 countries, it ‘was developed to be facilitative, incentivising and enabling users to implement strong NbS projects’. The Global Standard includes self-assessment on eight criteria and associated indicators, which address the pillars of sustainable development (economy, environment and society) and resilient project management (iucn.org).
The IUCN’s official announcement also states something very important, which most international policies lack: why was an NbS needed in the first place? It states that an increased demand for NbS has ‘led to cases of misuse of the concept, and even good intentions can result in harm to nature and people’. Topping the list on how they are misused is the fact that many don’t take into account social and economic factors. For example, they explain how a tree-planting project using just one non-native species could result in poor soil biodiversity, ultimately making it more costly or impossible to sustain a diverse forest in the future. Or how, restoring a mangrove forest to reduce the risk of storm damage, could be doomed from the start if upstream and downstream processes are not considered.
In India, there are many successful stories of NbS, a majority coming from the rural heartland. In the Chirgaon village of Maharashtra’s Konkan region, wildlife conservator Premsagar Mestri has successfully increased the region’s otherwise diminishing vulture population over the past few decades. Organic farmers like Telangana’s Mavuram Mallikarjun Reddy (who recently bagged the Jagjivan Ram Abhinav Kisan Puruskar from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) are among several across the country who are gradually switching over to natural farming practices. Over the years, The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) has successfully created models for cycle sharing in cities like Chennai and Pune, and continues to further the cause of sustainable and inclusive transport.
A 2020 blog on The World Resources Institute (WRI) mentions how, through the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), Surat, Gujarat has designed better management of natural water bodies and prevented construction on the floodplains in the city. Similar practices have been adopted by Burhanpur and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, where with the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), community participation helped in conserving and managing traditional water sources.
Albeit heartening, a lot remains to be done to ensure the large-scale application of such NbS projects. While education and policies that work from the ground up are crucial, so is funding. According to the UNEP, if the world is to meet the climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation targets, it needs to close a $4.1 trillion financing gap by 2050. The current investments in NbS amount to $133 billion — most of which comes from public sources. The WRI blog makes a case for managing fiscal allocations under flagship schemes and funds as a way to raise finances. The National Clean Energy and Environment Fund, National and State Disaster Mitigation Funds, Compensatory Afforestation Funds, District Mineral Foundation (DMF) etc. can be tapped for anchoring NbS.
What we need to see more of are well-planned urban rejuvenation projects — reviving water bodies and wetlands, encouraging eco-waste solutions, designing and promoting nature-friendly construction techniques, making public transportation accessible, among others. As for what we need to see less of, it’s our billionaires and trillionaires jet-setting to space at the cost of mind-boggling carbon emissions. We’d rather have them pump in these funds for the earth’s recovery. If only.
A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues