Developing countries can adapt to climate change effectively using nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions (NbS) are effectively contributing to climate change adaptation, producing multiple co-benefits among climate risk-related and broader development outcomes. Policy makers should expand funding for NbS when dealing with shocks and stressors and increasing adaptive capacities.
Published in Social Sciences and Sustainability
Developing countries can adapt to climate change effectively using nature-based solutions
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The increasingly evident and dramatic impacts of climate change, particularly in poor countries, have moved effective climate change adaptation to the forefront of climate action agendas. Support for suitable adaptation interventions, however, has so far been hindered by a fragmented understanding of their effectiveness. In this systematic review, we synthesize 363 empirical observations published in the scientific literature on the effectiveness of adaptation in low- and middle-income countries. With this data we explore whether it is more effective that interventions target adaptation specifically (in terms of hazards or exposure) or sustainable development more largely (in terms of social vulnerability and adaptive capacity). Additionally, we contribute to the debate around the effectiveness of different types of interventions, including the distinction between hard (technological and infrastructure-based) versus soft (behavioural or institutional) interventions, and the growing interest in nature-based solutions due to their potentially high cost-effectiveness and multiple benefits across contexts.

Geographically, most of the evidence was found in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 1).

 Figure 1. Geographic representation of studies included in the systematic review

We find that adaptation interventions can be effective with regard to both adaptation and development-related outcomes. However, more evidence was found for adaptation-related outcomes in the coastal sector compared to the agricultural sector. Also, in the coastal sector, the evidence points to potential trade-offs between adaptation and development-related outcomes. More robust is the evidence about the positive effects of interventions across both adaptation and development-related outcomes in the agricultural sector.

Nature-based solutions showed positive effects across all outcomes in both sectors. These include positive effects of crop diversification, water conservation and coastal habitat restoration on crop yields, food security and poverty reduction. Our findings are consistent with current literature arguing that such solutions produce multiple co-benefits, i.e., improve economic, social and environmental outcomes, while also contributing substantially to the reduction of climate-related risks. The findings also align with the claims that nature-based solutions and associated agro-ecological practices can enhance land ecosystem services and ensure sustainable land use systems in the agricultural sector.

In the agricultural sector, informational interventions including early warning, farmer schools, extension services were the only intervention (in addition to NbS) with clearly positive effects on both adaptation and development-related outcomes. This confirms the importance of perceptions and learning in environments impacted by climate change. Informational interventions can not only empower households and communities, but also allow governments and non-governmental organizations to understand farmer perceptions and how they influence their decision-making and risk-taking. These interventions also question preconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs about the food system, which can result in paradigm shifts and new opportunities for transformational development. Also, our results about the positive effects of technological and built-infrastructure interventions including investments in water infrastructure to improve crop yields, and transitions from dryland to irrigation cultivation to reduce social or economic vulnerability, echoes previous findings about the importance of effective water management for development in the Global South.

As further research, our analysis suggests the need to move beyond the debates on individual intervention effectiveness (e.g., hard versus soft, green versus grey interventions) and focus instead on finding synergies between interventions and combinations of interventions. Implementing multiple interventions in parallel could more effectively target individual and multiple climate risks, reach adaptation outcomes, and create synergies than if they were implemented individually. Finally, it is instrumental for enhancing the evidence-base for adaptation policies and programmes, to conduct more primary research closing existing gaps and reduce uncertainties for decision makers. This is particularly the case for the coastal sector, which has relatively little evidence compared to the agricultural sector, and for long-term, development-related outcomes. Moreover, the increasing complexity of development interventions, other particularities such as non-linearity of intervention outcomes or shifting baselines in the context of climate change, as well as the demand for transformational change and adaptive management, are calling for further investments into integrated systems of monitoring, rigorous evaluation and learning capacities. By the same token, intervention effectiveness assessments need to further include individual, household and community qualitative data, to ensure benefits reach those most at risk or in need in the long term.

This work is part of a larger evaluation of interventions for climate change adaptation conducted by the German Institute for Development Evaluation (DEval).

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