Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Nature’s answer to climate risk

In the face of rising climate and disaster risk, investments in nature-based solutions can protect lives and safeguard prosperity in a cost-effective manner

Nearly half the world’s population lives near coasts. As climate change exacerbates the effects of storms, flooding and erosion, the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of those people will be at risk. In fact, the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s World Risk Assessment Report names failure to adapt to the effects of climate change as the single greatest risk, in terms of impact, to societies and economies around the world.

Beyond endangering lives, more frequent and stronger storms could cost many billions of dollars, owing to infrastructure damage and lost revenues from farming, fisheries and tourism. Yet, the international community currently spends on risk mitigation less than one-fifth of what it spends on natural-disaster response.

With the human and the financial costs of climate change attracting more attention than ever, now is the time to shift resources towards risk reduction. Doing so will require national governments, industry, aid organizations and other NGOs to make the most of their investments. And some of the most effective and cost-effective solutions are already available in nature.

Coastal and marine ecosystems have considerable potential to mitigate the effects of storms and other risks, especially when combined with traditional built infrastructure. A 100m belt of mangroves, for example, can reduce wave height by up to 66% and lower peak water levels during floods. A healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97%, lessening the impact of storms and preventing erosion. These and other coastal ecosystems are the first line of defence for many cities around the world, from Miami to Manila.

Until recently, such nature-based solutions were too often overlooked. But the Paris climate agreement, reached last December, not only established a consensus on the importance of addressing climate change, but also explicitly affirmed that ecosystems play a role in capturing greenhouse gases and helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change.

At the national level, some of the most at-risk island countries are taking important steps. For example, last year, the Seychelles announced a first-of-its-kind “debt for nature" swap with its Paris Club creditors and The Nature Conservancy. The swap will allow the country to redirect $21.6 million of its debt towards investment in a comprehensive approach to ocean conservation that will bolster its resilience to climate change.

Private-sector leaders, too, are starting to look towards natural tools. Engineering firms like CH2M are working with coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond to find hybrid solutions that combine traditional approaches.

Nature can also help to protect livelihoods. A Red Cross-led mangrove restoration project in Vietnam not only reduced damage to dykes and other built infrastructure, but also resulted in higher aquaculture yields and thus more income for the local communities. A mangrove and coral restoration project in Grenada—a joint effort of the Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy and the fishers of Grenada’s Grenville community—has also shown great potential to increase resilience. Just 30m of reef and coral have been shown to increase substantially the population of lobster, conch, octopus and urchins.

In the face of rising climate and disaster risk, investments in nature-based solutions can protect lives and safeguard prosperity in a cost-effective manner—all while preserving imperiled natural ecosystems around the world. It is time for governments, business and NGOs alike to recognize that when it comes to fighting the effects of climate change and protecting coastal communities, preserving and restoring nature may be the smartest investment we can make.

©2016/PROJECT SYNDICATE

Maria Damanaki is global managing director for Oceans at the Nature Conservancy.

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