Nature’s answer to climate riskLONDON — Nearly half the world’s population lives near coasts. As climate change exacerbates the effects of storms, flooding and erosion, the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of those people will be at risk. Beyond endangering lives, more frequent and stronger storms could cost many billions of dollars, owing to infrastructure damage and lost revenues from farming, fisheries and tourism.
Yet the international community currently spends on risk mitigation less than one-fifth of what it spends on natural-disaster response.
When it comes to climate risk, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With the human and the financial costs of climate change attracting more attention than ever, now is the time to shift resources toward risk reduction. Doing so will require national governments, industry, aid organizations and other NGOs to make the most of their investments. And some of the most effective and cost-effective solutions are already available in nature.
Coastal and marine ecosystems have considerable potential to mitigate the effects of storms and other risks, especially when combined with traditional built infrastructure. A 100-meter (330-foot) belt of mangroves, for example, can reduce wave height by up to 66 percent and lower peak water levels during floods. A healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97 percent, lessening the impact of storms and preventing erosion. These and other coastal ecosystems are the first line of defense for many cities around the world, from Miami to Manila.
Until recently, such nature-based solutions were too often overlooked. But leaders increasingly recognize their importance, and are beginning to take action, including on the international level. The Paris climate agreement not only established a consensus on the importance of addressing climate change, but also explicitly affirmed that ecosystems play a role in capturing greenhouse gases and helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change.
At the national level, some of the most at-risk island countries are taking important steps. For example, last year, the Seychelles announced a first-of-its-kind “debt for nature” swap with its Paris Club creditors and The Nature Conservancy. The swap will allow the country to redirect $21.6 million of its debt toward investment in a comprehensive approach to ocean conservation that will bolster its resilience to climate change.
Private-sector leaders, too, are starting to look toward natural tools. Engineering firms like CH2M are working with coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond to find hybrid solutions that combine traditional and nature-based approaches.
Even the insurance industry sees the potential in natural solutions. Over the last decade, insurers have paid out some $300 billion for climate-related damage, often to rebuild the same vulnerable structures. According to one Swiss Re study, Barbados loses the equivalent of 4 percent of its GDP every year to hurricane-related costs. But every dollar spent to protect mangroves and coral reefs saved $20 in future hurricane losses. Given such findings, it is no longer inconceivable that insurance companies might one day write coverage for wetlands and other natural infrastructure that offer protection for coastal communities.
Climate and disaster resilience is a challenge that spans across sectors. So too must our solutions. Such collaborative efforts are vital to the development and implementation of more effective preventive strategies. The World Bank, the Nature Conservancy and partner researchers (including ecologists, economists and engineers) have recently published a report offering guidelines for such cooperation. Specifically, the report recommends calculating the value of coastal ecosystems in terms of protected capital and infrastructure, based on approaches commonly used by the insurance and engineering industries.
In the face of rising climate and disaster risk, investments in nature-based solutions can protect lives and safeguard prosperity in a cost-effective manner — all while preserving imperiled natural ecosystems around the world. It is time for governments, business and NGOs alike to recognize that when it comes to fighting the effects of climate change and protecting coastal communities, preserving and restoring nature may be the smartest investment we can make.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
*Maria Damanaki is global managing director for oceans at the Nature Conservancy.