This brief is connected to Investing in ecosystems: the cornerstone for sustainable renewal of the Canadian economy, one of a series produced by the Building Back Better Post-COVID-19 Task Force, a group of experts affiliated to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and its UNESCO Chairs Network. Their goal is to bring together sustainable economic recovery ideas to make our communities stronger in a post-COVID-19 world. The series highlights how responding to the COVID-19 crisis through adaptive and strategic infrastructure investments can preserve critical ecosystems, increase the use of green infrastructure, and protect regional resources and distribution systems. These infrastructures can meet basic human needs and improve human health, while fostering long-term community resilience, well-being and sustainable employment. The suggestions offered in this series support Canada’s commitments to the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and position the country as a world leader in developing new economies based on environmental sustainability.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts and organizations have called on governments across the world to move towards a greener economy and infrastructure to reduce ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, and the likelihood of future pandemics and disasters. It has become clear that business as usual is no longer an option. Developing a circular economy and regreening our lives are essential actions to improve community resilience and promote and secure a healthy and sustainable planet. In Investing in ecosystems: the cornerstone for sustainable renewal of the Canadian economy, another brief in this series, we demonstrated that nature provides substantial benefits that we generally forget about but which are crucial to our survival.
Considering the levels of land degradation, land and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity, the good of our planet and our societies requires solutions to improve our environment. To be sustainable, these solutions must address societal challenges while simultaneously protecting and restoring biodiversity and natural ecosystems. One cannot happen without the other. These actions are called Nature-based Solutions (NbS).
Nature-based solutions (NbS) are actions that address societal challenges that by protecting, sustainably managing, and restoring natural or modified ecosystems. These challenges can stem from environmental or climate changes and usually lead to threats in the sustainability of the human communities as well as their natural environment and biodiversity.
Therefore, NbS aim to simultaneously provide human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits.
NbS target seven pervasive societal challenges:
Many of these challenges are interrelated and need to be considered together. NbS are context dependent and specific to a particular location, usually a landscape where there would be communities and different ecosystems. NbS include several strategies related to conservation of biodiversity, sustainable adaptive ecosystem management, restoration of ecosystems, ecological disaster risk reduction, ecosystem-based adaptation, and green infrastructure.
The international context
In 2015, the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some goals are directly related to natural resources and ecosystems, especially goals 14 (life under water) and 15 (life on land). This demonstrates the importance of the ecological systems and biodiversity for human wellbeing and sustainability. NbS can significantly contribute to the array of measures that need to be considered by Canada to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs while supporting economic recovery.
The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report (GRR) 2019 identified biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as the most significant risks to economies, with extreme weather events and natural disasters topping the list. Following on the most intense hurricane season on record in 2020, there is a need to reflect about how to avoid and minimize these risks to global economies and human wellbeing. It is important to also stress that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the impacts of ecosystem degradation. The GRR and the SDGs recognize that it makes economic sense for business to move towards NbS to reconcile economic development with sustainable development and environmental protection.
Considering the calls for action by various international organizations, including those in the economic sphere, the following considerations offer some potential paths for governments across Canada to make this a reality.
To ensure that business and communities are moving in the right direction, there is a need to improve policy frameworks that support NbS and provide multiple benefits for human wellbeing and the environment as the same time. NbS are not only for ministries of the environment; such solutions can be integrated into ministries related to economic development, agriculture, infrastructure and communities, public service and procurement, and natural resources.
One of the first steps for Canada and the provinces is to accept the Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions and start integrating its criteria into decision-making policies and processes to address societal challenges, biodiversity, and ecosystem conservation. For example, the European Commission has already integrated NbS for the design, planning and development of urban ecosystems to address the challenges of human health and environmental degradation.
As demonstrated, restoration of wetlands, forests and even agricultural lands is needed to fulfill the commitment of Canada to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to achieve its commitment to protect 30% of its lands and oceans by 2030. Careful decisions will have to be made regarding the establishment of protected areas or national parks. In itself, a protected area is not considered a NbS unless it resolves some societal challenges while protecting the natural ecosystems. This means that the creation of protected areas, such as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves will have to be carefully discussed with the surrounding communities, especially Indigenous Peoples. Examining what challenges they are facing and how the designation of a protected area may reduce these challenges, will ensure that they simultaneously improve human wellbeing and conserve biodiversity.
Indigenous Peoples are close to natural ecosystems and consider that they are part of it, not separate or dominant like the current western worldview. They have been working on the principles of NbS for a long time (without naming it as such) and through their traditional knowledge, they can re-establish in many regions the advantages that these traditions have brought.
Indigenous Protected Conservation Areas (IPCAs) have a great potential to become very good examples of NbS when they integrate equitable and participatory land use, promoting biodiversity and ecosystem governance for the sustainability of their communities and the lands. As stated by the report of the Indigenous Circle of Experts on IPCAs titled “We Rise Together,” conservation of nature means cultural diversity conservation and food security through holistic governance and planning approaches.
This is the case with Bear River First Nation, a small community in Nova Scotia, and the development of the Seven Paddles Project linking Bear River and Kejimkujik National Park. This ecotourism project addresses conservation of biodiversity and natural ecosystems while improving human wellbeing through economic development. Another example is offered within the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Regions, where Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation declared four locations Tribal Parks. This new model aims to enhance environmental conservation while initiating new economic and sustainable activities. By promoting sustainable livelihoods, it is an alternative to the usual resource management approach.
NbS can be effective ways to address ecosystem degradation, human wellbeing and sustainable development in the post-COVID-19 recovery, by connecting the efforts of multiple government ministries. Economic recovery without nature will lead to further degradation and the emergence of more diseases and large-scale disasters. Moreover, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require us to tackle social,ecological, and economic issues simultaneously as they are interconnected. It is time to seriously consider integrative approaches to enhancing the economy while ensuring both environmental and societal benefits.
Liette Vasseur is UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global at Brock University. Jocelyn Baker is UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global at Brock University.
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