Countdown Conversations: Dr Fiona Nunan

Ahead of her Countdown Talk: “Power-sharing for nature-based solutions to climate change”, we spoke with Dr Fiona Nunan to further explore the challenges and opportunities of nature-based solutions.


Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Dr Nunan’s views are still fully represented.

What were the inspirations behind your talk on nature-based solutions to climate change?


Well, I've worked for many years on the governance and management of renewable natural resources, particularly inland fisheries, and particularly in East Africa on Lake Victoria. In recent years, there's been a lot of attention to nature-based solutions as being part of the response to the climate emergency. I feel quite strongly about this, firstly because we're not starting from scratch as we have a lot of experience in landscape restoration approaches, but also particularly in the way that local people and local communities are affected by, and therefore should be involved in natural resource management. I strongly believe that there is the potential for nature-based solutions to learn from the type of work that I've been involved in.

Secondly, I also think that there is a slight danger of nature-based solutions being seen as a technical fix or as dominated or becoming dominated by either ecologists or finances. Of course, ecology is important as you've got to know what you're doing in terms of the restoration. So I think it's important that people don't get lost and that we learn both from those who are used to working with local communities and so from social science, but also from political science, indeed a part of social science, so that people can bring forward the importance of the political economy for these kinds of solutions.


What do you think are the biggest implementation barriers and challenges for nature-based solutions?


I think one of the challenges is really getting the collaboration right. For example, how do you get the private sector interests and government to work with local people in a way that's fair and really effective? This can be really difficult to get right because people with greater power, money and resources tend to dominate. Another factor I believe to be a real challenge is keeping that collaboration and the nature-based solutions going over time, as they're not a quick fix solution. I think with all the examples that we can see across the world, we’re talking about decades needed to support these nature-based solutions, therefore maintaining them and making sure they're effective and fair is going to be a major challenge.


The UN has predicted that the proportion of the world’s urban population is going to rise to 68% by 2050. With cities expanding, what are your thoughts about integrating nature-based solutions into urban spaces?


I think it's absolutely critical. Not necessarily in terms of nature-based solutions offering a solution to the climate emergency in terms of a carbon sink, but for many other reasons. For example, by increasing the resilience of urban areas so that they can cope with the impact of climate change, whether that's through the heating effect or through extreme weather events. Furthermore, I think there are many other benefits to making urban areas more green – for people's wellbeing, their mental health, for biodiversity, as well as economic benefits such as enabling urban areas to cope with extreme weather events, particularly flooding. There is a very interesting flooding initiative in China where several cities have become sponge cities. This means people are accepting that they have built urban areas on wetlands and are giving over green spaces to absorb flood waters and then creating parks around the area.


Therefore, I believe there is a lot of potential surrounding the integration of nature-based solutions into urban spaces, with vertical farming and green roofs as further examples. That said, I think a major challenge would be retrofitting. We already have megacities across the world and have lost a lot of green space in these areas. A valid question is how to create enough green spaces? I think a solution to this might rely on secondary cities instead of the main megacities. For example, using these areas to relieve pressure on megacities and making sure that they have green spaces informed by nature-based solutions, to increase their resilience.


Do you think there is a possibility of balancing indigenous knowledge with new and advanced technology, as sometimes it can seem contradictory when we have traditional knowledge used by people for decades, but also people who are working on the latest technology and innovations?


I think you absolutely have to use both and find complementarities, and work out which initiatives are more appropriate and how they can work together. I'm not sure that it's a question of balance, but more so complementarity and integration, such as how we can better understand and respect each other's knowledge. I think a challenge of indigenous knowledge is scaling it up and actually finding out about it. However, having acknowledgement and respect, and ensuring that there are opportunities for that knowledge to be shared and used would be one of the first solutions to this.


What do you think we need in order to implement nature-based solutions at such a scale?


There are certainly a couple of challenges there. Firstly, if we’re thinking about scale, then we'd have to consider location and where things are appropriate and accepted. This refers to my previous points about the participation of local people and communities. Another way of thinking about scale is thinking more about how we can integrate ecosystem restoration into every part of life. For example, giving nature much more of a central role to initiatives in urban areas and part of development planning, and even thinking about agricultural policies and infrastructure projects. Yes we carry out environmental impact assessments, but I don't think we do enough to protect, restore and integrate with nature. We need to change our mindset and change the way we do things, so that we're not seeing nature as something merely out there, but something that we are a part of and that we can work with.


Nature-based solutions involve support and involvement by various corporations and local communities. What do you believe the role of the average individual is to combat climate change? Do you think there is a moral responsibility that we all hold?


I certainly think there is a moral responsibility that we all hold, but particularly people in the global north. These people generally have a comfortable lifestyle, and we consume far more than we should if you were to look at emissions per capita across the world. Our lifestyles indeed have an impact on people in other parts of the world and on future generations. We can consider developing low-lying or island states, such as Tuvalu, that are in danger of being sunk, therefore we absolutely do have a moral responsibility.


I think this can be a hard message to get across and not everyone wants to accept it. However, it is worth considering how we deliver this message so we’re not just trying to persuade people to change. Perhaps instead we need to be saying that you don't have a right to consume as much as you like or to have an SUV and emit as many emissions as you like. Therefore, thinking about rights and moral responsibility is an interesting way to go, and also presents a challenge for governments.


Talking about governments, what political incentive do you think exists for empowering these communities and how can we drive this?


I think that's a good question. I’d say governments tend to think short term and about their electorate so this can be quite difficult. I suppose the angle that I would try to push and that many other organisations have as well, is about justice and rights, so perhaps going back to responsibility. There have been multiple wrongs against people who are particularly affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, and it isn't right. I hope that advocating from a human rights angle and a justice perspective would drive such a political incentive.

Another incentive might be that there is plenty of evidence demonstrating how the involvement of indigenous people and local communities truly makes a difference towards nature-based solutions, ecosystem protection, and restoration. Therefore this is an effective approach both for nature’s sake and for their livelihoods.

Transcribed and edited by Lauren Walker.


The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Dr Fiona Nunan — not Lauren Walker, nor TEDxWarwick.


If you have any questions concerning the interview, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email publications@tedxwarwick.com.