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IUCN Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions

What are Nature-based Solutions and why do we need a standard?

Humans and nature cannot be treated separately since a society’s development goals and its conservation aspirations are closely linked and depend on each other. Given that the capacity of this planet to provide both is limited, these interdependencies cannot be ignored (Folke, 2006). In fact, human actions can drive both, conservation successes and economic development gains, at the same time. Local conservation initiatives of IUCN and partners have also demonstrated that wellbeing benefits for local communities and biodiversity gains can be achieved together. Two such examples are IUCN’s projects "Ecosystems Protecting Infrastructure and Communities" (EPIC) and "Water Infrastructure Solutions from Ecosystem Services Underpinning Climate Resilient Policies and Programmes" (WISE-UP).
Consequently, nature can be a strong ally in meeting development challenges. Ecosystems provide us with vital services such as timber, food, soil formation, purification of water, flood control, climate regulation or recreation. These services can be harnessed to meet societal needs such as food, water, adaptation to climate change and good health. The shift from managing ecosystems for conservation to an approach that allows conservation and development simultaneously will not be easy. We will need to break down silos to achieve transdisciplinary scientific knowledge, rethink policies to establish a facilitating environment and we need to create robust guidance on how the services of nature can be harnessed for biodiversity and society. Despite these challenges, humanity can no longer afford to ignore or undermine the potential of nature as a sustainable development solution.

Nature-based Solutions for Societal Needs

IUCN is a membership Union composed of both government and civil society organisations. It provides public, private and non-governmental organisations with the knowledge and tools that enable human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together. Created in 1948, IUCN has evolved into the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network. It harnesses the experience, resources and reach of its more than 1,300 member organisations and the input of some 10,000 experts. At the 2016 World Conservation Congress and members’ assembly, IUCN's members adopted a resolution (WCC-2016-Res-069-EN) which, for the first time, defined the use of nature for simultaneous benefits to biodiversity and societal well-being. According to the resolution, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. This definition is drawn from a more elaborated IUCN publication that outlines the NbS framework (Cohen-Sacham, 2016).  While not a new concept due to their origin and strong foundation in practice and implementation, NbS are a necessary articulation for scaling up win-win initiatives since such initiatives tend to be carried out at pilot or small project scales. As an umbrella and integrative concept, NbS have been further defined, adopted and applied in many different ways by IUCN and other organisations, such as the European Commission. Despite the diversification of the concept, all come across with a common goal: informing the sustainable use of nature as an economic strategy for human development (Nesshöver, 2017). In doing so, NbS guide the way in moving beyond safeguarding nature to addressing peoples' needs related to challenges such as adaptation to climate change, mitigating climate change impacts, food security, water security, reducing disaster risk, and attaining good health. NbS bring together established ecosystem-based approaches such as ecosystem-based adaptation and ecological engineering with the social and economic dimension. They apply to all types of ecosystems, including natural and modified ones. NbS can provide multiple benefits and foster win-win situations, but have to cope with complexities, uncertainties and trade-offs.

The need for a global standard

Without clear definition and benchmarks that enable effective transfer of NbS approaches from pilot or project scales to significantly larger scales, there is a risk that NbS remain a general metaphor. Additionally, NbS may stay solely within the conservation sector, thereby marginally contributing to solving societal challenges rather than becoming an integral to planning and implementing society’s responses to such challenges. Furthermore, if NbS implementation is not guided by robust knowledge and tools, this may pave the way for further overexploitation and unsustainable use of our planet's natural resources.

While NbS hold real potential, the absence of comprehensive guidance may promote ill-considered interventions which subsequently fail to deliver. This then further exposes the very communities they are designed to benefit and undermines government and investor confidence in NbS. Echoing this, IUCN members at the World Conservation Congress and members’ assembly 2016 called on IUCN's Director General and the Commissions to finalise the principles, parameters and guidelines for applying NbS, noting that users of the NbS concept need a common definition and guidance on its application, both of which are currently still lacking.

Currently, there is a rapidly growing evidence base on the positive effects of NbS. With robust standards and guidelines, further momentum can be achieved in engaging relevant sectors such as water, food, development and humanitarian aid to systematically incorporate NbS into their decision-making processes. Such standards and guidelines can also help assess the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of a particular NbS. This document lays out IUCN's draft NbS standard, describing criteria and indicators for NbS planning, design and implementation. Guidance on how to apply these criteria and indicators will be developed in the next months.

Purpose and users of the standard

This standard aims to create a common understanding and consensus on what constitutes a good NbS. It is intended to be a simple yet robust hands-on tool that informs the planning, design and implementation of an NbS, especially as an alternative to other types of development interventions such as hard infrastructure. In doing so, the standard will support wider uptake of the NbS concept. The draft NbS standard is currently composed of seven criteria which are broken down into several indicators each. The criteria and indicators are not sequential, but are related to one another and especially adaptive management and stakeholder engagement are cross-cutting issues. Some indicators are about processes and practices and others about outcomes to cover all aspects that contribute to well-defined and, ultimately, successful NbS.  
Together with a verification tool we are yet to develop, the standard will help determine whether and to what degree a project can be considered an NbS, in accordance with the IUCN Resolution and the IUCN framework. It will also allow assessing the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of an NbS and point to areas that need correction or can be improved to achieve the best possible outcome for society and nature.

The standard's users are intended to include governments and authorities at all levels, non-governmental organisations, private companies, the financial sector and local communities - basically all parties that may be the creators or implementers of NbS.

Scope of the draft standard

The NbS draft standard is currently composed of seven criteria which are broken down into several indicators each. These are accompanied by guidance and examples to explain the intent of the indicators. The criteria and indicators are not sequential, but are related to one another and especially adaptive management and stakeholder engagement are cross-cutting issues. Some indicators are about processes and practices and others about outcomes to cover all aspects that contribute to well-defined and, ultimately, successful NbS.

For the purpose of NbS self-assessment, the draft standard suggests means of verification for demonstrating compliance with the indicators and for monitoring NbS projects from inception throughout their lifecycle. However, since NbS can take different forms and can be implemented by a wide range of actors, from practitioners to decision makers, there may be means of verification that are better suited to show NbS compliance than the ones suggested in the draft standard. Where this is the case, the alternative means of verification may be used instead. As mentioned above, NbS are an umbrella for established ecosystem-based approaches. Compliance with the NbS standard may therefore be evidenced, to some extent, through the application of processes  described in methodologies, frameworks and guidance on ecosystem-based approaches, such as “Ecological Restoration for Protected Areas”, “Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology” (ROAM) or “Implementing nature-based flood protection”. Methodologies like Theory of Change or Logical Framework that are commonly found in non-profit organisations, philanthropy and international development may also serve as means of verification for some indicators. In the private sector, well-established sustainability reporting standards such as those developed by the Global Reporting Initiative can also be appropriate for demonstrating compliance with a number of NbS standard indicators. The draft NbS standard outlined in this document already references some of these relevant approaches and readers will notice that they appear multiple times.

The self-assessment against the NbS standard should be carried out at different stages of the project cycle, to help identifying non-anticipated outputs, weaknesses and strengths in order to improve or alleviate them. Therefore, the self-assessment should not be seen as a judgement on an NbS project. Rather, it aims to ensure the delivery of the anticipated societal benefits without compromising on nature. The self-assessment will make use of a traffic light system for indicating the status of the different listed indicators where green expresses that an indicator is fully met, orange illustrates partially reached and red, no accomplishment.

The self-assessment should be conducted as follows:
  • Review the indicators, guidance and examples and consider the suggested evidence
  • Identify the means of verification that are most suitable for demonstrating to what degree your project meets a respective indicator
  • Describe how and to what extent your NbS meets the indicator
  • Provide links to the used means of verification (if available online) or attach them to your self-assessment to substantiate your findings
  • Choose the appropriate colour coding (see below) for the respective indicator.
 Timeline for standard development

In October 2018, IUCN staff and members of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) were asked to provide feedback on the very first version of the NbS criteria and indicators. Now that we have incorporated feedback from this "internal" consultation, we are releasing the draft standard for public consultation. The consultation will last for 60 days. After taking account of the received feedback, we will launch a second draft version for public consultation. This second version will include the guidance to the criteria and indicators and will also introduce the proposed verification tool.

The consultations will help shape all elements of the standard. They will also help identify which of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the NbS concept helps address. These will be referenced in the standard once it has progressed further. The standard with its guidance and verification tool will be officially launched in 2020, during the World Conservation Congress in Marseille.

The timeline for developing the IUCN NbS standard can be seen in the following graph.

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