EbA Revisited, Part 1: disentangling misconceptions about nature and adaptation

By Shaun Martin, WWF

In 2011 I wrote a spirited piece for ClimatePrep called, “Ecosystem-based Adaptation: what does it really mean?” I attempted to explain the origins of EbA, its definition and the various ways it is interpreted and misinterpreted by both conservation and sustainable development groups. So confusing was the concept that at the time I said we avoided using the term ecosystem-based adaptation at WWF altogether. No more.

The movement for ecosystem-based adaptation continues to grow and I find myself more and more working with many groups to promote the idea and help design adaptation plans that incorporate elements of EbA. I have provided EbA trainings in Nairobi, Bishkek and Manila and keynote talks in Dushanbe and Hanoi. I am involved in writing funding proposals for EbA. I even participated in the CBD’s Technical Working Group on Ecosystem-based Adaptation, which produced a synthesis report on experiences on EbA for the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice.

Living Dangerously. Nature help us! © Shaun Martin

Living Dangerously. Nature help us! © Shaun Martin

Yes, EbA is keeping me busy. Five years ago I wasn’t talking about EbA at all. Today it seems I can’t shut up about it.

But five years on I still find the need to spend significant time helping people disentangle “true” ecosystem-based adaptation from the many other forms of adaptation that are often conflated with it. To do so I have devised a simple way to help would-be EbA practitioners sort out the several ways we can think about nature and adaptation. And now I would like to share this with ClimatePrep readers.

Remember that there is just one definition of Ecosystem-based Adaptation: the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. It’s been with us since 2009. Note there are four key components to this definition that are important to consider:

  1. the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services
  2. to help people
  3. adapt to the adverse effects of climate change
  4. as part of an overall strategy

True and effective EbA encompasses all four of these. Leave out #1 (nature) and you aren’t using the tools available for an ecosystem-based approach, so it’s not EbA. Leave out #2 (people) and you are missing the point of EbA entirely. And what about #3? If you are just repacking your old work without considering climate change, you aren’t helping anyone adapt. And finally, #4. EbA was never meant to be a stand-alone activity. It is only effective when combined with other measures that help people adapt to change.

There are many examples of how we can utilize nature to help people adapt to the changing climate. The example everyone is familiar with is planting mangroves to protect coastal communities from increasing storm surges.  We can also use wetlands to help mitigate flood risk or protect and restore forests to prevent soil erosion from increasingly frequent heavy rainfall events. Or we can maintain sand dunes to protect coastal communities from sea level rise.

So that’s EbA. But what about other forms of adaptation involving nature? How are they different?  I have found there are at least three ways we can think about nature and adaptation – ecosystem-based adaptation, ecosystem-centric adaptation, and ecosystem-friendly adaptation. We have just looked at what ecosystem-based adaptation is. Let’s look at the other two.

Ecosystem-centric adaptation helps nature so that it can adapt with the changing climate. You might also hear this approach referred to as adaptation for ecosystems or adaptation of ecosystems. While many may call this approach “EbA,” in fact, it is not. Ecosystem-centric adaptation begins by looking at how climate change is affecting nature and then taking action to help species and ecosystems adapt to potentially harmful change. Success is measured in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem outcomes.

Some examples of what I call ecosystem-centric adaptation include identifying and protecting climate refugia, which are areas that are projected to experience the least impacts from climate change. As species need to migrate to track suitable climates for their existence, we can also build movement corridors that facilitate their migration from one place to another. And we can rethink how we restore natural areas by giving preference to species that are likely to do well in the future rather than what has done well in the past.

Ecosystem-friendly adaptation shares the same goal of EbA in that it helps people adapt to climate change. Unlike EbA, however, it does not use biodiversity and ecosystem services. Rather, what I call ecosystem-friendly adaptation helps people adapt to change while doing little or no harm to nature. Success is measured in terms of the reduction of the vulnerability of people and the lack of damage to the environment.

Examples of ecosystem-friendly adaptation might include harvesting rainwater to provide water for times of drought or drip irrigation to improve water efficiency for agriculture in drying areas. One of my favorite examples of an ecosystem-friendly measure is fog catchers, which are used in mountainous areas to capture water from the air and use it for crops, trees and even for drinking. None of these measures uses ecosystems or biodiversity to help people adapt, but they are effective methods that help people while doing virtually no harm to ecosystems. UNEP has created a fantastic resource, Microfinance for Ecosystem-based Adaptation, detailing 20 activities (many of which are what I would consider ecosystem-friendly adaptation measures, not EbA), that include implementation instructions, costs and lessons learned for each. Check it out.

So we have ecosystem-based adaptation, ecosystem-centric adaptation and ecosystem-friendly adaptation. All involve nature in some way whether using it, helping it or not harming it. At this point, one may ask, “Which approach should I use in my work?” The answer is you probably need all three. There is a reason why EbA is defined as “part of an overall strategy.”

Ecosystem-based adaptation will only help people if the ecosystems services needed to reduce vulnerability to climate change persist into the future. Therefore, to be effective in the medium to long-term, EbA must be accompanied by ecosystem-centric adaptation measures that explicitly help ecosystems maintain functionality in a changing climate. Conversely, helping nature adapt without helping vulnerable people will similarly not be viable in the long-term. And finally, there are limits to how much ecosystems can help people adapt. Ecosystem-friendly measures are also needed to meet needs that nature cannot provide us.

I have used this trichotomy – ecosystem-based, -centric and -friendly— to great effect with a number of conservation and development groups venturing into the world of EbA. While there are lots of nuances and gray areas that this simple device does not cover, I have found it quite useful to get everyone on the same page before designing ecosystem-based adaptation measures.  But does this end all confusion among stakeholders? Certainly not! In my next post, I will discuss another aspect of EbA that hinders progress – what counts as an “ecosystem.”