Nature is the original innovator. Here’s how it can help to combat climate change

By Rachel Teng and Yogesh Hirdaramani

With a little help from cloud technology, improved regulation and smart design, nature-based solutions can solve many challenges, experts told GovInsider’s recent Festival of Innovation.

Last December, media outlets and participants christened the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) “Nature’s COP” – the first Conference of the Parties to bring nature into the heart of climate negotiations.

Beyond the landmark agreements to reduce carbon emissions and phase out coal, participating nations agreed on a range of plans to protect ecosystems and support indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ stewardship of forests, as set out in the Glasgow Pact.

During the latest edition of GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation, speakers from panels on decarbonisation and nature-based solutions said planning around these twin pillars of policy would be required to achieve meaningful action on climate change. Although rapid decarbonisation will be critical to limit the effects of global warming, nature-based solutions will also play a key role in further carbon capture and may even lead to net-negative emissions.

Decarbonisation triumphs and troubles

Decarbonisation research and projects are blooming like wildflowers across the globe, creating business for companies and missions for agencies as governments target net-zero emissions.

Singapore is a standout in Asia-Pacific on this front. Amid a slew of initiatives at the state Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Dr Ng Wai Kiong, Deputy Executive Director at A*STAR’s Institute of Sustainability for Chemicals, Energy and Environment, explained how a single decarbonisation project could address several policy priorities simultaneously.

Dr Ng and his team developed a carbon capture utilisation storage technology that collects carbon dioxide that has been emitted, converts it and stores it as sand for use in construction. It’s a breakthrough in turning rogue carbon emissions into a sustainable building material.

“As much as we try to go for carbon-neutral sources of energy, there will always still be carbon dioxide [emitted into the atmosphere],” Dr Ng said. “But we’re actively working with government agencies like the Public Utilities Board to use this material for land reclamation and construction so that Singapore doesn’t need to import so much sand.” In addition to helping to address Singapore’s land scarcity issues through providing material for land reclamation, the technology can also reduce shipping emissions generated by importing sand.

Genevieve Ding, Head of Sustainability Policy Strategy for APAC and Japan at Amazon Web Services, brought to the foreground of the discussion the ways in which governments can leverage technology and data to accelerate climate science and research.

“One of the biggest challenges to sustainability is data, and AWS tries to address some of these data challenges by providing open access to valuable datasets,” Ding said. She said that “democratised” climate data, helping to advance climate science by giving researchers everywhere access to it.

“Technology is not just an enabler, but it’s a multiplier,” she said. “It allows sustainability innovation to create impact at scale, beyond just an individual company’s own carbon footprint.”

Despite all their benefits, many factors prevent decarbonisation projects from reaching their full potential. “APAC and ASEAN markets remain the most challenging in the world for organisations trying to procure 100 per cent renewable energy,” Ding said. “This is due to a variety of reasons, including regulatory burdens, high costs and generally limited availability.”

Dr Ng said many projects lacked access to resources that would allow them to scale. “There are many research groups all over the world that are looking at how to make something out of undesired CO2 … but in order for them to be deployed and commercialised at a large-scale industrially, we need a large testbed for pilot testing,” he said.
This would bring transit projects into the high technology readiness level stage at which they’re economically viable for companies to adopt.

A role for nature

What must accompany mitigation technologies such as decarbonisation is nothing less than a paradigm shift, however. Syed Mubarak, Head of the ESG Subcommittee at the Smart Cities Network for ASEAN, said there was a need to rethink “the way we operate and the way we behave”, alluding to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible consumption.

This is where nature-based solutions play a part in encouraging a structural rethink of the way we approach the problems the world faces. Nature-based solutions are useful for mitigating climate change, but they also have utility in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, said Dr Dan Friess, Deputy Director at Singapore National University’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.

In Way Kambas National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, for instance, Singapore-based conservation NGO Mandai Nature is using tamed elephants as a nature-based solution to drive wild elephants from the park’s borders. Its elephant units help mitigate human-wildlife conflict involving local farmers and are responsible for extinguishing fires and preventing illegal poaching in the park, Mandai Nature Deputy Chief Executive Dr Sonja Luz said.

Yet nature-based solutions are on the fringes of adoptable approaches to the fight against climate change.

“There currently does not exist a universally agreed-upon definition of what a high-quality nature-based solution is,” said Rachel Koh, Conservation Manager at World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore. “And because we haven’t yet defined quality, we then lack a certification system that ensures the impacts of nature-based solution projects are truly transparent, equitable and fair.’’
There always is a risk of greenwashing when we have companies who look towards nature-based solutions as a way to delay – or worse still – avoid taking actions to reduce emissions”
- Rachel Koh, Conservation Manager, World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore

This gives rise to a number of controversial issues, including the potential for those involved in nature-based solutions to overestimate their impacts and contribute to a troubling trend of corporate greenwashing.

“There always [is] a risk of greenwashing when we have companies who look towards nature-based solutions as a way to delay – or worse still – avoid taking actions to reduce their own internal corporate emissions,” Koh said. World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore has set up a carbon markets task force in response to this to create a “best practices guidebook” when it comes to adopting nature-based solutions.

A key principle involves ensuring that carbon credits are not conflated with nature-based solutions. “We have to ensure that companies don’t look towards carbon credits as their first priority when they’re trying to maximise any intervention on the ground,” Koh said.

Indigenous perspectives

COP26 saw an unprecedented number of indigenous peoples’ representatives, making indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) the second-largest civil society group present at the Glasgow summit. Their presence highlighted a growing need for IPLC rights to be put at the forefront when considering nature-based solutions.

To incorporate IPLC rights into sustainability, Koh emphasised the need to avoid a dichotomy of narratives: one narrative viewing IPLCs as the beneficiaries of nature-based solutions – a “lucky them” narrative often used by project developers; and another in which IPLCs are viewed as custodians of nature for many generations. “When both narratives clash, we then see the problems of economic trade-offs not being well managed in exchange for non-economic or cultural gains,” Koh said.

Echoing that view, Firdaus Sani, a founder of indigenous community group  OrangLaut SG, said conservation extended far beyond tangible entities. “When we talk about conservation, nature or species conservation comes to mind, but we need to look into the conservation of heritage, culture and indigenous voices, as well,” he said.

All in all, climate solutions today possess considerable potential, but they’re not a “get out of jail free card” for governments or companies looking for a quick fix in the race to achieve net-zero.

“Nature-based solutions are a key supplement to many [decarbonisation efforts], but you can’t do nature-based solutions and not address other aspects needed to solve the climate crisis,” Dr Friess said. “It’s really important that they have to be in combination with things, not instead of.”

To watch these panels or other panels at the Festival of Innovation, register here.