Ecosystem-Based Adaptation: What Does It Really Mean?

By Shaun Martin, WWF-US

Ecosystem-based Adaptation. If you understand what adaptation is, then the term “ecosystem-based adaptation,” or EbA, should be self-explanatory. But it’s not. There is perhaps no concept more confusing or misunderstood than this one. So what does Ecosystem-based Adaptation really mean and why are we so confused about it?

To understand the source of this confusion, we must first look at another term – Community-based Adaptation, or CbA. As far as I can tell, there is no universally accepted definition of CbA. Each development organization that employs CbA seems to have its own way of defining it. One definition that I like states that “CbA is a community-led process based on communities’ priorities, needs, knowledge, and capacities, which should empower people to plan for and cope with the impacts of climate change.” (Hannah Reid, Mozaharul Alam, Rachel Berger, Terry Cannon, Saleemul Huq, and Angela Milligan, Community-based Adaptation to Climate Change: an Overview, 2010)

In spite of the absence of an agreed-upon definition, most variations of CbA share several common elements: a focus on human well-being with an emphasis on meeting the needs the most vulnerable (poor) populations; engagement of communities in defining the problem and developing solutions for themselves; and a tendency towards a local (community) scale. Noticeably absent (for conservationists at least) is a mention of ecosystems and the services they provide to sustain human well-being. It was this glaring omission that caused the conservation community to develop its own approach to meeting the needs of people – Ecosystem-based Adaptation.

Yes, that’s right. Ecosystem-based Adaptation exists to help people adapt to climate change. Unlike CbA, there is an official definition of EbA that states: “Ecosystem-based adaptation is the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.” This definition comes from the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Second Ad-hoc Technical Expert Group on Biodiversity and Climate Change. It doesn’t get more official than that.  IUCN has been at the forefront of promoting the concept of EbA and the IUCN website is a great source of information if you want to learn more.

While development and humanitarian organizations are beginning to incorporate ecosystems and ecosystem services into their adaptation strategies, it seems the development sector has taken exception to the term “Ecosystem-based Adaptation” and what it implies. Many are concerned that EbA embodies a top-down approach, something that goes against the values of most development organizations. Still others see EbA as a bold attempt by the conservation community to take away the focus of adaptation from vulnerable people.

The focus on meeting people’s needs through EbA is what causes so much confusion among conservationists and results in the frequent misuse of the term.  To most who aren’t familiar with the official definition of EbA and why it was developed wrongly assume that Ecosystem-based Adaptation is the conservation world’s equivalent of Community-based Adaptation. In other words, many conservationists believe that EbA exists to help species, biodiversity, and ecosystems just like CbA helps people. It’s just like English speakers who are unfamiliar with Spanish assume embarazada means “embarrassed.” (It means “pregnant.”)

So avoid embarrassing yourself. You should know what the official definition of EbA says and be aware that when you hear people talk about EbA they could mean something different entirely. A common way of applying the term is to take a species- or biodiversity-first (rather than people) approach. In this version of “EbA” a conservation organization will define a conservation target, like tigers or tuna or mahogany, and devise measures to reduce its vulnerability to climate change impacts. People only enter the equation when it is clear that their responses to climate change will be counterproductive to the conservation of the target species. Then they begin to work with communities to ensure that their needs are met without undermining the health of the ecosystem on which their target species relies. This is not truly EbA, but you will hear people describe this approach as if it were.  I imagine that this interpretation of EbA is why many in the development sector believe that conservationists are using EbA to take the focus away from people.

A second variation of EbA recognizes the needs of people explicitly, but still does not go far enough to meet the true definition as adopted by the CBD. It proclaims that since people benefit from healthy ecosystems then helping ecosystems adapt will therefore help people adapt. In this version, benefits to people are mere byproducts and not the goal of adaptation. I suspect that a number of conservation groups are using this variant of what they believe to be ecosystem-based adaptation (knowingly or unknowingly) as a convenient means to justify what they are already doing (restoring and conserving ecosystems) without getting too entangled in the messy business of putting the needs of people front and center in their conservation strategies. Taken even further, it also implies that we don’t really need to change what we are doing at all, that business-as-usual conservation is enough.

It’s probably a fair assumption that adaptive ecosystems will help people in general. But making investment decisions without a complete picture that includes impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, and people is simply not wise. Without truly understanding or addressing the needs of people in a new and dynamic climate, you cannot begin to know if your adaptation measures have any chance of succeeding.  In my opinion conservation groups are merely gambling their scarce resources when they take this approach to adaptation. They could get lucky, but maybe they won’t. This is not Ecosystem-based Adaptation in the true sense of the term.

It is not my purpose here to force people to use the term EbA correctly or to promote EbA as a way to move forward. I only want to make people aware that EbA means many things to many people.  It’s unfortunate that a well-intended concept like Ecosystem-based Adaptation has led to mistrust and confusion. While we at WWF try to avoid using the term, I find even myself using it from time to time as a convenient way to describe adaptation for ecosystems and biodiversity. Unfortunately, the conservation community has yet to come up with a commonly accepted short-hand term for the process and strategies needed to reduce the vulnerability of species and their habitats to climate change impacts, something we will surely need to address if we are to achieve our missions.  But we probably shouldn’t try to create yet another term that will only lead to further confusion or give the impression that it is ok to focus adaptation on the species we care about without also helping Homo sapiens adapt.