Let nature take its course?
Why our society and economy need nature-based solutions

By Kate Vincent, Principal Ecologist, Atkins

As the enormity of the climate crisis becomes clear, the best answers to restoring biodiversity and developing sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure often come from nature itself. Working together with nature, ecologists and engineers can create far more effective solutions - and a better chance of a stable climate.

In June 2019, parliament passed legislation requiring the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% relative to 1990 levels, by 2050. If the UK is to reach its Net Zero commitment, it’s not just about how we generate and use energy but also about how we build and manage our land too.

In some ways, it seems incredibly obvious: the best methods for healing the natural world come from nature itself. Yet nature-based solutions have only recently become a part of the discussion around climate change.

Natural areas are in decline, and for too long they have been perceived as an impediment to efficient development. But with the climate crisis escalating we can’t continue with ‘business as usual’. Ecologists must become joint partners with engineers and architects, creating developments that are not harmful to the natural world but are in harmony with it. Then we can begin to repair the damage done and prevent worse still in the future.

For harmony, go holistic

Biodiversity loss and climate change are inextricably linked. They cannot be solved in isolation. Both have been exacerbated by a narrow-minded focus on the economy as if it exists in isolation, failing to acknowledge how deeply it relies on natural processes. The holistic approach to ecosystems, propagated by ecologists through nature-based solutions, show how we can tackle biodiversity loss and climate change together. 

Nature-based solutions can help mitigate climate change and build resilience to its effects, as well as benefiting biodiversity and people in many other ways. Using engineered solutions inspired by nature, we can work with nature in a sustainable way while designing and delivering world class infrastructure.

In a world beset by an increasingly volatile climate, this new approach is essential to continued prosperity and security of our civilization. Infrastructure that does not take ecology into account is more likely to fall foul of its environment, just as cities lacking in greenery often suffer flooding, excessive heat and pollution problems. In future, any repetition of such short-sightedness is likely to be far more catastrophic as the climate changes rapidly.

Enter the ecologists

Nature-based solutions work best if ecologists are brought into projects from day one. This can ensure that infrastructure projects are deeply integrated with their wider natural environments. Collaboration has already yielded some encouraging signs. For instance, natural flood management, using small interventions to slow the flow of water through river catchments, creates new wetland and avoids and reduces the significance of floods.

Through early involvement, ecologists can find solutions that others overlook. Excitingly, Atkins is part of an experiment at a large estate in Essex (UK), comparing flood resilience created by two very different wetland architects: engineers and beavers. Flood storage areas are being created using bunds and leaky dams installed by people, while in another part of the same catchment beavers have been introduced. Beavers, nature’s wetland engineers, were extinct in the UK for generations, and we are just beginning to understand the benefits that people, and biodiversity, can gain from their reintroduction.

Greener is greater

Much of the harm that has been done through heedless construction has happened because we failed to recognise our reliance on the natural world. Thinking is beginning to change. There’s an increased openness to natural solutions and the holistic benefits they can bring, whereby green, natural and sustainable engineering solutions are being seen as the way forward. Organisms are shaped by their environment, so it should be no surprise that they are usually far more synchronised to its needs and rhythms than our man-made artefacts. Our industry is now starting to understand the important role nature-based solutions can play as scalable and cost-effective responses to the climate threat, all of which are actionable now. A new sense of optimism is emerging.

Undertaking the right actions are important, such as increasing tree cover in the right places, and restoring coastal areas, natural grasslands and peatlands. Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change recommended an afforestation programme that increases tree cover from 13%, of all UK land, up to 17% by 2050, as well as the restoration of at least 50% of upland and 25% of lowland peat. These measures will help combat climate change and be an important contribution to the Net Zero 2050 target, whilst also helping restore biodiversity.

However, sometimes easy ‘solutions’ can be anything but – tree planting, for example, can sequestrate carbon, but planting the wrong trees, in the wrong places, can harm biodiversity. By considering trees as part of a complex ecological matrix we can ensure they contribute effectively to both carbon sequestration and restoring natural habitats.

Nature-based solutions, and the ecologists who propagate them, can help to heal the divide between people and nature and ultimately heal the environment itself. The fate of our civilization might just hinge upon it.