Nature-based solutions to the impacts of climate changes—such as naturally occurring landscape features that protect our coastlines from the impacts of hurricanes and other coastal storms—also generate real economic benefits. But how do you account for this type of value that doesn’t show up on the typical balance sheet?
On Earth Day 2022, the Biden administration announced the launch of the first-ever U.S. National Nature Assessment to better understand and account for the value that nature provides to our economy. Led by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, this assessment is an attempt to create a holistic picture of the benefits nature provides to our economy now and anticipate how it might change in the future.
I was recently invited to participate in a closed-door White House panel on the important economic benefits provided by nature that will help inform the national assessment. Here are my top three takeaways from the event.
One of the sectors that can benefit the most from nature-based solutions is transportation. For example, restoring local vegetation can prevent the intrusion of floodwaters into roads and other surface transportation systems. This is critical as flooding and other extreme weather events are likely to persist and potentially worsen in the future due to climate change.
There’s a huge backlog of restoration projects in the queue so it may behoove the federal government to call upon the private sector to help the Army Corps of Engineers accelerate these projects. Environmental regulatory compliance and impact assessments often slow down the process, so it’s a positive step that the new Inflation Reduction Act includes dedicated funding to improve the efficiency of federal reviews and permitting.
There’s a big opportunity to grow the qualified workforce as this field expands. Currently there’s a gap in certifications and course work that focuses on topics such as environmental permitting, monitoring and evaluation, applied ecology and engineering, and adaptive management. Involving relevant communities in outreach and education programs could be one way to fill that gap and also provide much-needed green jobs.
Historically marginalized communities typically bear the brunt of climate impacts. For example, highway-adjacent communities disproportionately affected by tailpipe emissions face higher levels of air pollution and health issues such as asthma—in part due to the lack of trees and other greenery that absorb CO2 emissions and release oxygen. Yet too often federal money is spent on projects in wealthier zip codes.
A tech-forward, data-informed strategy of community mapping can help determine which areas are most exposed to climate impacts. This informs where federal dollars should be allocated in order to direct investment dollars toward low-income, marginalized groups.
Accounting for the full value of nature-based solutions is a large task, but an important one. As a former federal employee, I know how powerful a whole-of-government approach can be to achieve big goals. But it can be challenging to coordinate across independent government agencies. A focus on breaking silos—especially in the key areas of transportation, workforce development, and environmental justice—will fuel the success of nature-based solutions.