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Two for one

Climate change adaptation and mitigation can be achieved simultaneously by investing in nature-based solutions

By HELEN DING | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-11-30 08:10
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The science is clear-this is our make-or-break decade to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 C, but our actions are not enough. Concerns from various stakeholders are often centered around climate actions slowing economic growth. However, economic growth will be a lot more difficult to achieve if we don't effectively tackle climate change.

Global warming has huge economic implications. For instance, drought is the greatest contributor to yield loss in China, and it is estimated that seasonal droughts will lead to an estimated 8 percent reduction in China's three major staple food crops by 2030.

Climate risks such as agricultural drought, urban stormwater, and coastal storm surges are expected to intensify in the future. The earlier we invest in climate adaptation actions that help build resilience, the more damage can be avoided. Such investment would also reap multiple economic benefits. Globally, investing in climate-resilient infrastructure can generate fivefold returns, in terms of avoiding losses and the economic, social and environmental benefits.

A recent report released by the World Resources Institute assessed climate-resilient infrastructure, including nature-based solutions investment in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Wuhan in Hubei province and Shenzhen in Guangdong province. It found that the expected economic returns on such investment in China can be two to 20 times.

In Ningxia, a region prone to drought, investment in water-saving irrigation facilities has helped avoid crop yield loss, protect farmers' livelihoods and ensure food security. By using water efficiently, the irrigation facilities can meet the water demand for local agricultural production and create higher economic value via a water rights trading system, which allows farmers to sell their unused water quota to an industry buyer that faces a water deficit. Any water that is left is used to restore degraded ecosystems, which provides valuable environmental benefits by increasing water retention, reducing soil erosion and sequestering more carbon. These facilities could be replicated in other regions that also suffer from drought. It is estimated that the total costs of the two water-saving projects will be about 14.3 billion yuan ($2.24 billion) with net benefits around 31.3 billion yuan to 58.5 billion yuan over 30 years.

The sponge city project in Wuhan was designed to tackle the issue of flooding and could help other inland cities facing similar problems. The nature-based solutions used in the project-such as green roofs, retention tanks and wetlands-help enhance the city's drainage capacities, reduce stormwater risks, and protect urban infrastructure. This has not only improved the livability of the city, but also generated economic, social and environmental benefits by adding value to real estate, recycling stormwater and regulating the local microclimate. It is estimated that the total net benefits will be 16.5 billion yuan over 30 years.

In Shenzhen, a coastal megacity, the restoration of nearby mangroves is strengthening the gray infrastructure. It has set an example for other coastal cities, showing that mangrove restoration will not only help them better cope with storm surges and reduce the losses from tidal damage, but also bring environmental benefits by protecting biodiversity and boosting carbon sequestration and additional oxygen release. Moreover, the improved ecosystem health in coastal areas will provide new opportunities for the low-carbon transition of the local economy such as tourism, and create new economic industries and jobs, which will generate high economic and environmental benefits. It is estimated that the total net benefits will be 7.7 billion yuan over 30 years.

Scaling up climate-resilient infrastructure more broadly in China is extremely important. For instance, the adoption of water-saving irrigation facilities nationwide can ensure national food security; sponge city construction can protect inland cities against stormwater damage; and green-gray sea dike protection can strengthen coastal resilience and protect coastal populations against storm surges.

The importance of nature-based solutions such as restoring forests and other natural ecosystems were highlighted at the recent COP 26 UN climate summit in Glasgow. Among the first and most significant announcements made at the summit was the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use, in which 137 countries committed to collectively ending forest loss and land degradation by 2030. A total of $19.2 billion ($12 billion from public sources and $7.2 billion from private financing) was pledged to help protect and restore forests globally. Countries signing on to the Glasgow Declaration affirmed the importance of all forests in limiting global warming to 1.5 C, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and maintaining healthy ecosystem services.

Modest achievements were made at the COP 26, but bolder actions need to be undertaken going forward.

Business-as-usual will continue to drive deforestation, as well as the loss of other critically important ecosystems, and further fuel climate change-all existential threats to humanity, including through their potential contribution to a growing risk of future pandemics. This year represents the moment when we have to chart a different course.

The Forest, Agriculture and Commodities Trade Dialogue is a first-of-its-kind global collaborative partnership between key producer and consumer countries to develop principles for action and a shared road map setting out how to achieve sustainable land use and international trade, particularly of soft commodities linked to deforestation such as beef, palm, soy, and timber. If successful, this would be a major contribution to the global effort to address climate change and keep the Paris Agreement's target of 1.5 C in sight.

The world must repurpose the over $400 billion of annual government agricultural subsidies to produce food in a more environmentally friendly way. Ambitious subsidy reform aimed at greenhouse gas emissions reductions, nature protection and improved environmental management-will in turn be fairer for developing nations, creating space for them to adopt more sustainable practices while supplying commodities that can still compete.

The author is a senior environmental economist of the Economics Center at the World Resources Institute. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the editor at

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