Nature-based solutions: a new panacea on the horizon

Nature-based solutions are the new fashion. Currently, it seems the term is going viral with plenty of webpages [1], documents [2], funding calls [3], scientific papers [4] and conferences [5,6,7,8] using it. This week I returned from the most recent conference in Bonn, Germany, titled “Nature-based solutions for climate change in urban areas and their rural surroundings – linkages between science, policy and practice” (ecbcc2015) [5]. But in the midst of all the elation, the concept of nature-based solutions leaves me with a sour note. To me it seems that we are currently witnessing the rise of a new panacea.

“…nature and solutions – how can this go wrong?”

 The researchers currently working on nature based solution are greatly diverse. In fact, during the conference you could listen to keynotes on climate change adaptation and mitigation, human well-being, governance, planning, business models, invasive species, valuation of nature, and sustainability transitions. Not that I doubt that these themes have something in common but the community seems to have little interested in shared concepts, a common terminology, or, to put it shortly, lacks a uniting agenda. While scholars remain at their doorstep, it complicates the identification of a common ground that would facilitate boundary work for effectively integrating different perspectives. Accordingly, the created vacuum is appropriated by all kinds of motives. The tension of this lies in the term itself that suggests a very positive connotation, nature and solutions – how can this go wrong? However, the term is applied without clear definitions [9] serving as an open invitation for co-optation for diverging ends.

Nature-based solutions touches upon many related concepts. These include, among others, ecosystem-based management, ecosystem services, ecosystem-based adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity, as well as blue and green infrastructure [9]. While my expertise [10,11] does not reach far enough for conclusive statements, the danger of reinventing the wheel is apparent to me. Firstly, if the link to the above-mentioned concepts remains blurry, I anticipate seeing in no time research papers on nature-based solution and economic valuation, spatial planning, tradeoffs, governance and so forth. Second, these investigations would have their merits if the concept were significantly different from related ones. To me, however, nature-based solutions look more like an agglomerate of similar concepts, shading off details and counteracting existing boundary work for sustainability [e.g. 12]. Finally, the resources for solely clarifying its meaning are diverging attention from the actual work on developing, testing, and implementing real-world solutions. Thus, I cannot shake off the feeling that we are solely creating a new concept and more publications but no real change.

The concept caries a transformational notion but will not deliver on it promise by default. While the emphasis on solutions suggests good intentions, the contrary seems to be the case. Indeed, defining the solution before identifying the problem, the concept will become a hammer to which everything looks like a nail. This turns nature-based solutions into a prescriptive, one-fits all approach although overcoming panaceas is considered essential for building “a solid field of sustainability science” [13, 15181]. In addition, the concept implies that engineered, technical interventions are capable of solving any problem with societal root-causes. Well established advancements in our understanding of agency, institutions, and governance arrangements are being neglected. Thus, nature-based solutions reinforce a “hard” systems thinking approach which has been dismantled years ago as being highly inappropriate for real-world situations [14]. This danger can only be reduced if sustainability is explicitly addressed and sustainability assessment become a cornerstone of appraising efficiency and effectiveness of nature-based solutions [e.g. 15].

Nature-based solutions “will become a hammer to which everything looks like a nail.”

My reluctance to get enthusiastic about nature-based solutions is surely biased and most certainly it blinds me to seeing the benefits. Nonetheless, my time in Bonn at the ecbcc2015 could not convince me of the opposite. Maybe your comments will – let me know what you think.









[9] Potschin, M.; Kretsch, C.; Haines-Young, R., E. Furman, Berry, P., Baró, F. (2015): Nature-based solutions. In: Potschin, M. and K. Jax (eds). Ecosystem Services Reference Book. EC FP7 Grant Agreement no. 308428:

[10] Luederitz, C., Brink, E., Gralla, F., Hermelingmeier, V., Meyer, M., Niven, L., Panzer, L., Partelow, S., Rau, A.-L., Sasaki, R., Abson, D.J., Lang, D.J., Wamsler, C., von Wehrden, H., 2015. A review of urban ecosystem services: six key challenges for future research. Ecosyst. Serv. 14, 98–112.

[11] Wamsler, C., Luederitz, C., Brink, E., 2014. Local levers for change: Mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation into municipal planning to foster sustainability transitions. Glob. Environ. Chang. 29, 189–201. //

[12] Abson, D.J., von Wehrden, H., Baumgärtner, S., Fischer, J., Hanspach, J., Härdtle, W., Heinrichs, H., Klein, A.M., Lang, D.J., Martens, P., Walmsley, D., 2014. Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability. Ecol. Econ. 103, 29–37.

[13] Ostrom, E., 2007. A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 104, 15181–7. doi:10.1073/pnas.0702288104

[14] Checkland, P., 2000. Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective. Syst. Res. 58, 11–58.

[15] Gibson, R.B., 2006. Sustainability assessment: basic components of a practical approach. Impact Assess. Proj. Apprais. 24, 170–182. doi:10.3152/147154606781765147


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