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SEI brief

Spotlight on social equity, finance and scale: Promises and pitfalls of nature-based solutions

This brief introduces a four-part series exploring nature-based solutions (NbS). Responding to identified gaps in existing knowledge about the social and economic sustainability aspects of NbS, the series seeks to explore their costs and benefits and how they can be developed without leaving anyone behind.

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Barquet, K., Leander, E., Green, J., Tuhkanen, H., Omondi Odongo, V., Boyland, M., Fiertz, E.K., Escobar, M., Trujillo, M. and Osano, P. (2021). Spotlight on social equity, finance and scale: Promises and pitfalls of nature-based solutions. SEI brief. Stockholm Environment Institute.

Green building

Building incorporating nature into the design. Photo: Entienou / Getty Images.

Human activity has modified and deteriorated natural ecosystems in ways that reduce resilience and exacerbate environmental and climate problems. Physical measures to protect, manage and restore these ecosystems that also address societal challenges in sustainable ways and bring biodiversity benefits are sometimes referred to as nature-based solutions (NbS).

There is now an impetus to shift towards greater deployment of NbS. In addition to offering an alternative to conventional fossil fuel-based or hard infrastructure solutions, they also hold great promise for achieving multiple goals, benefits and synergies if implemented correctly. These include climate mitigation and resilience, nature and biodiversity protection and economic and social gains.

Protected ecological carbon capture mangrove in Everglade City, Florida

Protected ecological carbon capture mangrove in Everglade City, Florida. Photo: Marie Hickman / Getty Images.

There was an explosion in publications about NbS in 2020, contributing to filling many of the knowledge gaps that existed around their effectiveness and factors for their success. These publications also highlighted the knowledge gaps that remain and reveal a lack of critical reflection on the social and economic sustainability aspects of NbS.

NbS are intended to produce positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes. However, the recognition that solutions will not automatically be equally beneficial for all across geographies, timescales and social groups is seldom made explicit or explored in depth.

Building on these gaps, we decided to launch a mini-series of four briefs to provoke a more nuanced discussion that highlights not only the potential benefits, but also the potential risks and trade-offs of NbS. The series will cover three key areas of NbS research where knowledge gaps exist:

  • Social equity – To date, little attention has been given to questioning the sorts of power-knowledge relationships mobilized and reinforced through the propagation and implementation of NbS and not much is known about how their benefits are delivered to more marginalized communities.
  • Finance – When it comes to the funding of NbS, justice and equity are elements that are rarely problematized in discussions. This means that investments may cement or create new demographic inequalities and exacerbate gentrification.
  • Scale – Despite increasing interest in mainstreaming NbS, little is known about the mechanisms and conditions necessary for scaling them up in practice. Misjudgements can lead to suboptimal outcomes for the resilience and sustainability of human-environmental systems.

Unless social equity and justice are well-considered throughout the governance and implementation of NbS, policies and projects will create winners and losers and likely reinforce existing inequalities and injustices.

The purpose of the series is not to downplay the importance of NbS for biodiversity, ecosystems and coastal mitigation and adaptation, but to ensure that we establish a dialogue about ways to overcome these challenges while leaving no one behind.

In this brief, we introduce the three themes that the series will explore: equity, finance and scale. Keep an eye out for our upcoming briefs where we put the spotlight on each dimension!


Download the brief / PDF / 2 MB

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SEI authors

Karina Barquet
Karina Barquet

Team Leader: Water, Coasts and Ocean; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Elin Leander
Elin Leander

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Jonathan Green profile picture
Jonathan Green

Senior Researcher

SEI York

Heidi Tuhkanen
Heidi Tuhkanen

Senior Expert (Environmental Management Programme)

SEI Tallinn

Mónica Trujillo

Research Fellow

SEI Latin America

Philip Osano
Philip Osano

Centre Director

SEI Africa

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