Nature Won't Save the Planet

Advocates like to hype nature-based adaptations as solutions for developing countries. That's not what those countries need.

Nature Won't Save the Planet

In September and October, more than 11 million people across Puerto Rico and Cuba lost electricity when Hurricane Ian made its devastating arrival in the Caribbean. The floods and high winds from this hurricane were bad enough, but Puerto Rico hadn’t even fully recovered from Hurricane Fiona, the September storm that damaged about 50% of Puerto Rico’s transmission lines and distribution feeders, which were already in poor condition before the storm. Meanwhile, in Cuba, Hurricane Ian tore apart tobacco farms, a leading export crop that constitutes one of the largest contributions to Cuba’s GDP.

Across both countries, communities who saw roofs torn off homes and schools considered themselves lucky compared to areas where stormwater washed buildings completely away. The road to recovery and resilience will be a long one—a journey for Caribbean countries that one can only hope is complete before the next major disaster strikes.

Why is Severe Weather so Disastrous for Small Island Developing Nations?

Hurricanes are a fact of life for the Caribbean’s island nations, but their impact need not be this great. Average mortality from storms, floods, and droughts is 15 times lower in high-income countries than in small island developing states (SIDS), one of the most vulnerable groups to extreme weather. For natural disasters overall, low-income countries suffer more than three times the mortality rate per disaster than high-income countries.

The key difference is infrastructure. High-income countries have much stronger, modern infrastructure that can withstand threats. Far more of the population in SIDS live in hazard-exposed areas without safeguards. Compounding the issue, infrastructure is the backbone of the economy and the means of recovery after natural disasters via hospitals, clinics, grocery stores, etc. So not only do small island developing states lack the built environment to protect many citizens during disasters, they also lack sufficient means for cleaning up after.

For decades, by contrast, richer countries have been building resilience through effective engineered infrastructure. Updated building codes made a visible difference for Florida upon Hurricane Ian’s arrival. The Thames Barrier has long protected central London from flooding like the Maeslant Barrier has within the Netherlands.

Given the clear benefits of hard infrastructure, the emerging focus on nature-based solutions (NbS)—measures that rely on ecosystems to reduce the impact of natural disasters, preserve biodiversity and provide benefits for human well-being—for SIDS is alarming.

Proponents of these methods include the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which champions NbS as a way to “address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.” Examples include using forests and wetlands to reduce flooding, erosion, and landslides; maintaining mangroves and reefs to reduce the impacts of storms, erosion, and saltwater intrusion; and establishing green roofs and planting trees in cities to mitigate the effects of heatwaves, capture stormwater, and reduce pollution.

Over the past few years, island nations have shown increasing interest in these “natural” solutions—much like they’ve embraced solar and wind as “natural” forms of clean energy. A director from Bahamas’ Ministry of Environment and Housing has already called for additional investment in NbS for protection from flooding and erosion. Fiji’s climate change division stated that it needs to preserve and replant mangroves to achieve the country’s net zero emissions goals. NbS projects are beginning to pop up across island nations to address vulnerabilities to climate change.

In part, this makes sense. Many island nations, especially in the Caribbean, depend on revenue from tourists coming to experience their natural beauty. Small island states have thus prioritized natural resources, including when it comes to climate adaptation. At the same time, outsiders also romanticize the poor, stereotypical image of island life, with its apparently “closer” association with nature and its slower rate of development. Nature is continuously put at the forefront as the “first line of climate defense”—in a way not done when it comes to discussions of developed countries, although developed countries presumably have nature, too—instead of infrastructure development.

What’s the Harm in Nature-Based Solutions?

When it comes to climate change, policymakers and activists should prioritize whatever solutions are scientifically supported as the most effective, and there is still insufficient clear evidence about how much value NbS truly offer. Within the NbS literature, only a fairly small number of studies provide a quantitative rather than qualitative analysis of NbS co-benefits. Some approaches calculate indexes (where appropriate) compared to baseline data. Other approaches conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for monitoring and assessment. Often, coordinators can’t pre-assess NbS projects, which means that the projects have to be implemented before any measurements can even be attempted; that is a lot of time and effort to invest before the most valued benefits are seen, if they are seen.

Researchers must do more to compare NbS effectiveness with that of gray infrastructure, which so far has been insufficiently done. By nature, NbS are complex networks of interacting organisms, which means that many other context-specific natural and non-natural factors interact with them, potentially influencing their performance and complicating accurate measurement of their efficacy. The intensity and frequency of threats also raise important questions about how well NbS themselves can withstand climate impacts. For instance, what good is a grove of trees for storm protection if it is ripped out of the ground after each hurricane?

Naturalistic approaches, moreover, have unique limitations which make them more challenging for governments to implement. These include scaling and the timeline on which they can be expected to deliver benefits. Projects require large-scale implementation to bring about significant impact, but doing so is challenging working across different ecological scales and stakeholders. Many NbS benefits accrue over periods of years or decades, which makes predicting and measuring effectiveness even more difficult. Advocates often claim that NbS can deliver higher economic returns compared to gray infrastructure. Nature undoubtedly provides benefits like clean air and a sense of peace that are difficult to quantify, let alone assign a dollar value to. But for developing countries, which both require the largest increases in resilience and have the least money to make that happen, spending efficiently is more pressing.

Advocates also emphasize that NbS have more co-benefits, such as improved air quality, pollination, and food access. Many of these co-benefits falter when considering the surrounding context. A commonly discussed one is carbon storage; although the actual value of such storage will be marginal compared to the gigatons of carbon removal we’d need to make a significant impact on global warming. And the air quality improvements that would come from planting trees throughout a city are minuscule compared to pursuing emissions reduction through better vehicular engines, industrial waste treatment, and clean energy production. Nations could implement both methods at the same time, but the technological approach would offer the faster and more reliable path.

NbS also potentially come with their own set of risks, such as increased mosquito, tick, and other disease vector species that would benefit from an increase in their habitats. This is especially concerning when considering NbS near or in urban areas. The question of drawbacks is important to ask, but so far, this question remains mostly overlooked under the romanticized assumption that nature-based measures will do no harm. NbS risks should be thoroughly analyzed with the same rigor that gray, engineered infrastructure risks are.

How Should Small Island Developing Nations Pursue Resiliency?

Before any small island nation pours a large amount of funding and effort into NbS, it should focus on research that sufficiently measures NbS’ effectiveness. And it should compare that research to data on solutions that have quantifiable and proven benefits, measured and acceptable risks, and well-understood costs.

Updated building codes improve resilience against natural disasters and increase energy efficiency. Heaters and AC units enhance protection against extreme temperatures. Resilient electricity grids reduce outages during extreme weather and ensure continued productivity. Disaster prevention technologies create a much safer environment while protecting both natural and technological assets we value. Flood barriers around the world have effectively protected inland and coastal areas for decades. Sea walls help prevent erosion and provide coastal flood defense. And the cascade of human flourishing that gray infrastructure can spark produces more than enough of its own co-benefits.

These gray systems aren’t perfect, but they provide much more definite and reliable resilience. The economic and social benefits they provide are likewise well understood. Infrastructure maximizes economic growth and wealth-building. And for society, people with a higher standard of living, including access to healthcare, education, and housing—all things that gray infrastructure is part of providing—cope much better with natural disasters. All of this equates to development, which itself increases resilience in all aspects of modern life.

Rather than considering NbS over gray infrastructure, then, SIDs should first strengthen existing infrastructure, given that these systems present constant problems today. SIDs should then determine what new infrastructure is needed and then figure out how hybrid (green-gray) solutions might play a role so long as the research supports such approaches.

Strong winds and severe flooding were enough to rip apart many homes in Puerto Rico, despite all the natural vegetation surrounding them. Hundreds of thousands are still without power there. After Ian’s passage through Florida, by contrast, some residents were connected to the grid in days, and most Floridians now have power again. What Puerto Rico needs is economic development, and the infrastructure development that comes with it, not more nature.

Overall, SIDS should be very wary of an excessive focus on natural adaptation techniques at this point in time. NbS may have their place in adaptation efforts, but they need more robust evidence before we push smaller, less developed nations to prioritize them, especially before their effectiveness has been demonstrated in less vulnerable, more developed nations. Stronger, more resilient engineered infrastructure, facilitated by economic development, will underpin the main path toward climate resiliency for SIDS.