Should we place our trust in technology or natural solutions when it comes to tackling climate change?
It’s 2050. You walk out of the house. The day is shiny but not too hot. You know that the mirrors in orbit around the planet that reflect back sunlight keep the climate just perfect. On the way to work, from the window of your self-driving floating solar module, you gaze over a plant installed a few years ago: it’s sucking excess carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into 3D-printed chairs, shoes, and other objects.
You get out of the module looking at the 72nd floor of a solar-powered skyscraper where you work and feel happy we have achieved all this, even though we didn’t manage to save most of the original coral reefs. We’ve also lost all the wild polar bears, adélie penguins and few thousand other species, while many countries globally have been hit hard by climate change. Still, it took us only two decades to get all the climate technology working. For a moment, you wonder: “Could this have been any different?”
Now back to 2019. You are just reading a piece on nature-based solutions. While some scientists say that geoengineering our future is the only way to secure a livable climate, others believe that even with all the technology available we should still learn to work with nature first. And they’ve got the facts and arguments to back up their stance. Nature-based (or simply “natural”) solutions have been around for millennia, but only recently have they started to emerge into concrete approaches within urban planning, finding wider support among scientists and decisionmakers worldwide.
The basic premise is this: we need to adapt together with nature, not apart from it. Proponents of the approach say that we should focus on mitigating negative impacts on ecosystems as a whole, helping them become more resilient in the face of environmental change. A similar concept of “ecosystem-based adaptation” suggests that we need to think how society and nature can adapt together, rather than focus on how these seemingly discrete entities will benefit from adaptation measures.
Departing from a strict focus on humans, these approaches zero in on restoring and rewilding natural habitats, protecting wetlands, introducing agroecology and agroforestry in cities, as well as green roofs and walls, along with a myriad of other solutions that shape the green infrastructures of our habitat. There is increasing evidence that these approaches do work. For example, implementing nature-based solutions in cities has shown to reduce the heat island effect, moderate the impacts of heatwaves, improve storm-water management and decrease air pollution.
A number of research projects have explored lessons learned by the forerunners. Recently an international scientific collaboration NATURVATION even launched a database of 1,000 nature-based solutions from 100 European cities. Now we can explore living walls in Cordoba, Spain, learn from green roofs in Bologna, Italy and get insights into the workings of green districts in Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden, so as to see the endless benefits these solutions can provide.
In many parts of the world, nature-based solutions have also helped to create spin-off effects like an increase in the quality of life for residents such as a three-store highway in Seoul transformed into a flourishing botanical Skygarden. Along with the obvious climate and other benefits those solutions provide, they are also often cheaper and less risky as compared to more technically oriented ones. That’s why, if implemented properly, natural solutions are often called a no-regrets approach.
The benefits of nature-based solutions are many. Still, some scientists argue that we should keep geoengineering programmes going anyways as the pace of change is far too slow. And in case all other efforts fail they could be our last islands of hope. Scientists are also warning that not all natural solutions are all that “cool”; e.g. there is some new evidence that forests in certain parts of the globe may actually warm the planet.
Considering all that, it is likely that we will witness a mix of both nature-based and technological solutions in the near future as the recent UN Emission Gaps 2019 report suggests. Still, it is up to us in our everyday decisions, such as what means of transport we choose or whether we support a local urban garden, that will determine how nature and technology will shape our future.
Now, for a moment, let’s start this all over.
Fast forward to 2050 again. You walk out of your house. A squirrel jumps over you, luckily leaving your clothes intact. “These creatures have grown so bold recently,” you think. You decide to take a 20-minute walk to work through an urban forest. You enjoy these morning walks with a view of the lake where you can observe dozens of different bird species going about their business. You’ve learned to recognize them all.
Getting to you office, covered with a green roof and green walls, just outside the forest, you feel glad about how it has all turned out. You still remember how 20 years ago the pressure from the industry and the government to build a carbon removal plant instead of rewilding the area was as high as ever. And, for a moment, you wonder: “Could this have been any different?”