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Observers of the COP28 climate negotiations, indeed of any recent discussion about greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, will have heard numerous references to nature based solutions. Nature based solutions certainly have a role to play in mitigating climate change but unless we can quickly develop some standards for evaluating the wisdom and measuring the effectiveness of proposals, plus some rules for stopping those proposals that do not pass the tests, we run the risk that many so-called nature based solutions may turn out to be ecological disasters.

The term “nature based solutions” lacks a strict definition but is generally considered as a means of reducing GHG emissions in a way which works with nature and exploits nature’s potential. The concept is very attractive, not just for many in industry who view it as a way of reducing GHG emissions without interfering with industrial activity, but also for many ordinary people who see it as a way of reducing the loss of biodiversity (read cuddly critters), forests, and all those good things, while addressing climate change without having to engage with scary technology such as may be found in geo-engineering and phasing out fossil fuels.

The opportunity for winning some public support was recognized by Environment & Climate Change Canada in a recent press release from Dubai that was headlined “Canada and United States announce renewed commitment on climate and nature ambition,” but which only briefly mentioned “conserving, restoring, and sustainably managing forests” and the explanation that Canada and the U.S. will also work to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, fight forest loss and land degradation, and conserve old‑growth forest on federal lands — as if these were not things that the two countries are already doing.

With the possible exception of reforestation and afforestation, which have been studied extensively for at least the last 30 years, no one really knows how much nature-based solutions can help with climate change mitigation. For example a 2021 paper published by researchers at the National Institute of Animal Nutrition and Physiology in India found that buffalo emit similar amounts of methane as cattle. This not so surprising finding means that programs to restore the herds of buffalo will have a negative impact on the climate. Similarly projects designed to maximize carbon sequestration with the densest possible forest monoculture will likely have a negative impact on biodiversity, so to maintain and improve biodiversity our managed forests will have to hold to a lower than the maximum possible yield of timber and carbon sequestration.

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There are many examples where human efforts to manage biodiversity by introducing species to foreign ecosystems have resulted in a disaster for native species. Rats in New Zealand leading to loss of native birds, rabbits in Australia preventing the successful regeneration of many native trees and shrubs, and the careless but very damaging introduction of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes are just a few of many more ecologically damaging interventions that humans have made to nature.

We have no international standards with which to evaluate or measure the effectiveness of so-called nature based solutions. We have few effective international treaties with which to control some of the more extreme ideas that are being put forward as “nature based solutions.” We have too many climate action enthusiasts who lack adequate scientific expertise to properly evaluate the wisdom of the ideas they put forward and for which they sometimes win funding from equally unscientific government or private sector agencies.

There are opportunities in which increasing biodiversity and mitigating GHG emissions can go hand in hand but not all biodiversity projects help mitigate climate change and not all climate change projects help biodiversity. We must continue to support effective biodiversity and climate change projects without pretending that the two problems have a common solution.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

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