Nature-based solutions as a means to environmental justice in New York City; the importance of nature-based solutions to protect Canadian coastal communities

Opportunities for Growth: Nature-Based Jobs in NYC is a new report released on December 1, from Just Nature NYC, a partnership between the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and The Nature Conservancy in New York .  The report argues that nature-based solutions “ are vital to improving environmental health and building climate resilience – particularly in environmental justice communities. Climate scientists project that the frequency of annual heat waves in NYC will increase three to-five-fold by 2050, and heat waves are expected to last longer than those of the recent past.”

The report breaks new ground with a discussion and definition of a nature-based job:

“Nature-based jobs (NBJs) are defined as jobs that directly contribute to natural infrastructure and nature-based ecosystems with the goal of enhancing human health and well-being and promoting biodiversity.”  

Using that definition, the report determined that were 45,560 nature-based jobs in the New York City in 2020, in such positions as landscape architects, construction managers and tree trimmers and pruners. It notes projected growth for each role between 2020 and 2025, with the most expected growth to be in the professions of soil and plant scientists (expected to grow by 41 percent) and conservation scientists (with a growth of 27 percent). With a focus on the environmental justice benefits,  the authors call for near-term growth of nature-based jobs; increasing job equity, accessibility, and quality; and the need to promote deeper public appreciation of nature-based solutions.  Summaries are available in  “To Combat Climate Change, NYC Needs More Nature-Based Jobs: Report”  (City Limits, Dec. 6)  and  a December 1 summary in The Medium.

Another report arguing for the importance of nature-based solutions was published by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo in December.  Rising Tides and Shifting Sands: Combining Natural and Grey Infrastructure to Protect Canada’s Coastal Communities  assesses the urgent dangers of flood and storm damages on Canada’s East and West Coasts, and discusses the current status of coastal protection measures. It differentiates between grey infrastructure (the hard, engineered measures such as seawalls) and nature-based solutions (which depend on, or mimic, natural systems to manage flood and erosion risk).   The report argues that nature-based solutions are underutilized, and in addition to offering protection, deliver multiple benefits, including improved biodiversity, carbon sequestration and storage, enhanced wellbeing and opportunities for recreational activities.

Rising Tides and Shifting Sands recommends scale-up of nature-based solutions through: 1. Developing national standards to support consistent evaluation of the benefits of nature-based solutions;  2. Developing national monitoring standards for coastal protection measures, focused on nature-based solutions; and 3.  Building  capacity to finance and deliver nature-based solutions by engaging the private sector. (“ Public-private partnerships can potentially assist in financing, delivering, monitoring, and maintaining nature-based solutions. The insurance industry can also assist in managing construction risks and offering innovative insurance products that provide funds to restore natural features protecting the coastline, should they be damaged during extreme events.”)

Job creation potential of nature-based solutions to climate change

U.K. think tank Green Alliance commissioned research to measure the economic impact of nature-based investments for a green recovery,  and released the results on May 4.  The full report, Green Renewal – The Economics of Enhancing the Natural Environment, was written by WPI Economics, and states:  “Looking at just three types of enhancement (woodland creation, peatland restoration and urban green infrastructure) we find that an expanded programme of nature restoration could create at least 16,050 jobs in the 20% of constituencies likely to face the most significant employment challenges. We present place-based analysis of the labour market and nature based solutions, which can also be found on an interactive webpage here.”  The report emphasizes that nature-based interventions can create jobs in areas that need them the most – stating that two thirds of the most suitable land for planting trees is in constituencies with worse than average labour market challenges.

Jobs for a Green Recovery is a summary report written by Green Alliance, based on the economic WPI report.  It emphasizes the impact of Covid on youth employment, stating that 63% of those newly unemployed in 2020-21 are under 25, argues that nature-based jobs are long-term, skilled and productive, and makes specific recommendations for the British government so that such jobs can become part of the U.K. green recovery. Green Alliance estimates that  investments in nature-related jobs have a high cost-benefit ratio, with £4.60 back for every £1 invested in peatland, £2.80 back in woodland, and £1.30 back for salt marsh creation.  

Jobs for a Green Recovery includes brief U.K. case studies.  An interesting a related Canadian example can be found in the new Seed the North initiative, described in The Tyee here . Seed the North is a small start-up company in Northern B.C., with big ambition to scale up. Currently, the project collects wild seed from Canadian trees, uses innovative technology to encase the seed in bio-char, and then uses drone technology to plant seeds in remote forest areas.  The result:  increased regeneration of disturbed land, restored soil health,  a statistically significant contribution to carbon sequestration, and economic benefits flowing through co-ownership to the local First Nations communities who participate.  

Links between Pandemics, biodiversity, and climate change

The experts of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES) released their Report of an earlier workshop on October 29,  warning that “the risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which could potentially spark a pandemic.”  The problem, as stated in the report: “The majority (70%) of emerging diseases (e.g. Ebola, Zika, Nipah encephalitis), and almost all known pandemics (e.g. influenza, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19), are zoonoses – i.e. are caused by microbes of animal origin. These microbes ‘spill over’ due to contact among wildlife, livestock, and people……Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities. The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change. These include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption. These drivers of change bring wildlife, livestock, and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into people and lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban centres and global travel and trade routes.”

Prevention 100 times cheaper than reactive policies

The IPBES Report asserts that pandemics are not inevitable. The authors advocate a dramatic shift in policy to prevention, rather than the current reactive scramble to treat diseases through vaccines etc. – an approach which brings enormous human suffering, and economic costs. The report estimate the economic costs of the reactive approach at “ likely more than a trillion dollars in economic damages annually.”  – likely 100 times the costs of prevention.

Given that the IPBES is an intergovernmental body linked to the United Nations, it is perhaps not surprising that one of their key recommendations is to establish a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention, which would provide decision-makers with scientific research,  economic impact estimates, and a global monitoring mechanism. They also suggest an international accord or agreement with mutually agreed upon targets. Finally, they suggest specific measures, such as taxes or levies on meat consumption, which would impact consumption patterns, and reduce the globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2012, with 137 member states as of 2020 (including Canada and the U.S.) . In 2019, the IPBES published a landmark report,  Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services .  A  key IPBES scientist, Cambridge Professor Partha Dasgupta,  was named by the government of the United Kingdom to lead an Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, in preparation for the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference , now postponed till May 2021.  The Dasgupta Review Interim Report was published in April 2020.  (discussed in  “Halt destruction of nature or suffer even worse pandemics, say world’s top scientists”   in The Guardian (April 2020) .  

Also in 2020, the 13th annual edition of the Living Planet Report  was published by the WWF, linking pandemics to ecosystems, and reiterating the message that “unsustainable human activity is pushing the planet’s natural systems that support life on Earth to the edge.” In addition to compiling data about the loss of natural species, the report offers nature-based solutions to prevent ecological collapse and to mitigate climate change – especially in the companion report, Too Hot To Handle: A Deep Dive into Biodiversity in a Warming World .  

U.K. Citizens Climate Assembly report reveals a window on public opinion

On September 10, after meetings which spanned 5 months and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Citizens’ Climate Assembly issued its final, 556-page report, The Path to Net-Zero, with over 50 recommendations on how the U.K. should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The 108 member group, ages 16 to 79, was selected to be representative of the country in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, rural versus urban, geography and level of concern about climate change.  Their recommendations, summarized by The Guardian here and by Carbon Brief here, were built on agreed-upon principles that included urgency and fairness – “Fair to people with jobs in different sectors. Fair to people with different incomes, travel preferences and housing arrangements. Fair to people who live in different parts of the UK”.  In general, participants preferred protecting and restoring nature over technological solutions, and stressed the value of ‘co-benefits’ of improved health and local community and economic benefits.  Specific recommendations included measures to decarbonize transport  (including a ban on SUV’s and a frequent flyer tax for air travelers) and a reduction in  meat and dairy consumption by between 20% and 40%.

The recommendations will be tabled and debated in the U.K. House of Commons, and the six select committee chairs that commissioned the report will provide responses.  A press release by the Assembly describes the process further.