Countdown to COP26 | Nature-based solutions and land use

Written on 5 Feb 2021

Interest in nature-based solutions has been hotting up since the UK identified it as a campaign issue in the run up to its COP26 presidency. And we can expect to hear more about the topic as we get closer to the crucial conference, which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

But what are nature-based solutions? How do they fit in with the road to net zero and the Paris Agreement? And what opportunities are there for the wider economy in embracing them?

Osborne Clarke explored these questions at a recent webinar – the second in a series of Countdown to COP26 webinars – held in partnership with our Scottish friends, Harper MacLeod. (You can find out more about the first webinar which looked at the significance of COP26 here.)

What are nature-based solutions?

Put simply, they are solutions that use the natural world to mitigate the effects of climate change. These could be as diverse as a mangrove restoration project in the developing world – which helps prevent coastal erosion – or a green roof in an urban environment that helps to improve air quality and biodiversity.

The term also encompasses broad land use policies. In the UK, these are concentrating on three main areas: reforestation and new woodland planting, restoration of peatland, and sustainable agriculture.

Nature-based solutions and the wider economy

Landowners are the most obvious stakeholders in the deployment of nature-based solutions – whether that be local and national government, nature and conservation groups or traditional estates and farmers. For the latter group, engagement in nature-based solutions will involve some carrot by way of incentives and also some stick in the form of regulation.

For the wider economy, the most immediate touch point with nature-based solutions is the scope for carbon offsetting. Nature projects that have a net negative effect on carbon by removing carbon from the atmosphere can be used to offset carbon emissions elsewhere. Thus, many corporates which have set ambitious voluntary net zero targets are looking to use nature-based solutions to offset their emissions.

Currently, there is no centralised voluntary carbon offsetting market – developers usually sell direct or via brokers – and some carbon offsetting projects can attract criticism. It is crucial that corporates seeking to engage with nature-based solutions via carbon offsetting seek advice before taking the plunge.

As well as being attractive for corporates, the offset market is also a useful mechanism for making a project viable for investors and developers looking to fund nature projects as it gives them a ready route to a return. In the longer term, many governments are moving to value land on a natural capital basis and so the land itself will have an increased value.

How does this fit in with the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement commits countries to limiting the rise in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Most people are familiar with the idea that this will be achieved by reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. And they are also familiar with man-made infrastructure and human innovation and new technology that will be crucial in that global journey: renewable electricity, electric vehicles, low carbon heating and so on.

But reducing emissions is only part of the commitment. The Paris Agreement also requires countries to help populations adapt to climate change. Again, many will be familiar with the man-made tools that can help with adaptation, such as flood defences or irrigation systems.

Nature-based solutions are crucial for both mitigation AND adaptation and provide a complementary and sometimes more effective solution to man-made interventions. UN-endorsed research suggests that nature-based solutions can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 under the Paris Agreement.

In addition, nature-based solutions have a wider wellness impact and are also increasingly being talked about as important for a just transition to a low carbon world.

How will nature-based solutions feature at COP26?

One of the expected areas of focus for COP26 will be Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which sets out a mechanism for establishing a new international carbon market to replace the existing market established under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Failure to agree on the final rules of the Article 6 mechanism was a major failure of COP25 in Madrid and Article 6 is back as a key agenda item at COP26.

Once established, an international carbon market under the Paris Agreement framework would mean a step change for the role of nature-based solutions – particularly those located in developing countries which find it more difficult to access carbon markets.

Another key agenda item for COP26 is progress on adaptation and loss and damage to the environment. Nature-based solutions are a key component of this work.

How can Osborne Clarke help?

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