Getting the message right on nature-based solutions to climate change

1 February 2021

Nature‐based solutions can play a key role in helping to tackle the climate and nature crises, while delivering other benefits for people, according to a new paper from the Nature-based Solutions Initiative (NbSI) at the University of Oxford - but it is vital to get the message right about how to deliver successful NbS and avoid potential pitfalls.

Professor Nathalie Seddon, Director of the NbSI and joint first author of the paper, explains NbS projects are people-led and biodiversity-based. They emerged in the late 2000s as a move away from conserving nature for its own sake to conserving nature for people’s sake and they currently have huge traction in business and government. They were high on the agenda at Davos last week and are a major theme of November's climate change conference, COP26, being hosted by the UK government.

This new research, published in Global Change Biology, sets out how a wide-range of well‐designed NbS can deliver multiple benefits for people and nature. For example, coastal mangroves or coral reefs can protect from storm surges, urban green spaces help to cool cities, and improving soil health can help farmers adapt to droughts.
But, as Alison Smith from Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and joint first author of the paper, explains, ‘Most of the recent limelight has been on tree planting for carbon sequestration - and often these trees are commercial plantations of non-native species with little benefit for biodiversity.’

She notes, ‘The expansion of forestry framed as a climate change mitigation solution is being used for corporate greenwashing, as an excuse for continued use of fossil fuels. Although it is vital to protect a diverse mix of carbon-rich and bio-diverse native ecosystems, such as old-growth forests, natural grasslands and wetlands, there is a limit to the carbon that can be stored by newly planted trees - and this carbon is at risk if trees are harvested or if they die from fire, drought or disease as the climate continues to warm.

Professor Seddon emphasises that NbS must be designed and implemented in partnership with local communities, with an equitable sharing of the benefits. ‘Poorly designed projects sometimes ignore the rights of local people to govern their natural resources, undermining the legitimacy and long-term success of the project.’

After discussing the promises and pitfalls of NbS, today’s paper encourages policymakers, practitioners and researchers to consider four guiding principles to deliver sustainable benefits:

  • NbS are not a substitute for the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels;
  • NbS involve a wide range of ecosystems on land and in the sea, not just forests;
  • NbS are implemented with the full engagement and consent of Indigenous peoples and local communities in a way that respects their cultural and ecological rights, and
  • NbS should be explicitly designed to provide measurable benefits for biodiversity.

‘If we follow these guidelines, we can design robust and resilient NbS that address the urgent challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, sustaining nature and people together, now and into the future,’ says Professor Seddon.

In this way, she argues, ‘NbS can play a key role as part of a fundamental paradigm shift that is being fast-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the transformation of a destructive global economic model centred around GDP and infinite growth, that ignores nature’s value to people and its intrinsic value, to one where a healthy economy is defined by the social and ecological wellbeing it brings.’

Notes for Editors

Professor Nathalie Seddon ( and Dr Alison Smith ( are available for comment.
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  1. This paper provides the evidence for and thinking behind the four guidelines on successful, sustainable nature-based solutions ( sent to the UK government in Jan 2020 by the Nature-based Solutions Initiative, together with a large group of conservation and development organisations, which the NbSI is pushing to be formally adopted by the government at CoP26.
  2. The article will be published in the journal Global Change Biology and available from 00:01 on Monday 01 February 2021 at this link:

The Nature-based Solutions Initiative is an international, interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists based in the Department of Zoology and the School of Geography, but collaborating with economists, engineers, governance and finance experts from across the University of Oxford and beyond. Its mission is to understand the potential of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) to address global challenges and support their sustainable implementation through the application of good evidence from science and practice. We also work in partnership with international and local NGOs from the conservation and development sectors and we advise decision makers in business, government and the United Nations.

The Environmental Change Institute was established in 1991. Its aim is to organise and promote interdisciplinary research on the nature, causes and impact of environmental change and to contribute to the development of management strategies for coping with future environmental change.

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