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Ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions: how do they differ and why does it matter?

January 17, 2023
Freshwater catchments across the world are increasingly being restored using nature-based solutions. Image: Alexander Cahlenstein | Flickr Creative Commons

Awareness of the need to restore Earth’s ecosystems has become increasingly mainstreamed in recent years. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration began in 2021, marking the start of increased efforts to halt the degradation of global ecosystems, and restore them to mitigate the effects of climate change and stop the collapse of biodiversity.

More recently still, the concept of nature-based solutions has entered the global environmental conversation. Nature-based solutions aim to manage natural processes to bring benefits to both people and ecosystems. For example, planting native forests in watersheds can help naturally filter water supplies, and reintroducing beavers can create the floodplain environments which buffer flooding.

As a result, the terms ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions are often used interchangeably. And, of course, there is significant overlap between them: nature-based solutions are an increasingly central part of many restoration projects globally. But given the rapid growth of both approaches, it is useful to ask: how do they differ, and why does it matter?

Defining ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions

As a starting point, it’s helpful to look at globally-agreed definitions of each approach. According to the International Standard for Ecological Restoration, restoration means, “assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact.”

On the other hand, the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions as, “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.”

As these definitions suggest, the two concepts are similar and mutually supportive. However, the starting point of restoration is nature itself, whereas the starting point of nature-based solutions is societal needs and goals. Restoration’s focus on healthy ecosystems can, and often does, have benefits for society, but traditionally such benefits have not been the primary aim. This can make it harder to communicate the relevance of restoration actions to individuals and institutions who are not engaged in biodiversity conservation.

As a result, nature-based solutions represents a paradigm shift to a focus on how restoring ecosystems creates benefits for human well-being, economies and societies, particularly in terms of building resilience to environmental and climatic changes. It is often suggested that this focus on the human benefits of restoration projects can motivate more sectors of society, including economic bodies that affect, or are affected by, ecosystem degradation.

Restoration and nature-based solutions in a freshwater catchment

An hypothetical catchment helps imagine the impacts of restoration activities on freshwater ecosystems. Image: MERLIN

The MERLIN project supports the use of nature-based solutions in ambitious freshwater restoration projects across Europe. The diagram above shows a hypothetical freshwater catchment with many of the characteristics of the project’s real-life sites. These include rivers, streams and wetlands impacted by agriculture, hydropower and urban development. The hypothetical catchment helps us outline the subtle differences between ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions approaches to management.

A restoration project in this catchment might aim to improve the extent and quality of wetland habitats by focusing on ecological connectivity through a range of activities to improve water quality, biology, morphology and hydrology. Actions that slow the flow of water through the landscape – such as upland rewetting – may also reduce downstream flood risks and provide some cultural ecosystem services such as increased landscape amenity. However, these are unlikely to be the main aims of the intervention. Restoration work in the catchment would not entirely ignore human activities in the landscape, but would seek to reduce the human impacts and pressures, as a means of restoring healthy, functional ecosystems.

On the other hand, a nature-based solutions approach in this catchment would start with a societally defined problem, such as flood risk management, and tailor its environmental management accordingly. For example, the use of Natural Water Retention Measures to protect communities and settlements would also consider other ecosystem services delivered by the catchment system, such as improving recreational access, or drinking water quality. Regulating extreme flooding events would likely benefit other economic sectors in the catchment, including agriculture, hydropower, navigation and water supply. Improvements to hydrological connectivity would benefit wetland habitats, but there is likely to be less attention paid to conservation issues such as tackling non-native invasive species.

Restoration and nature-based solutions in practice: planning, implementing and monitoring

These differences can often be seen in the way that projects are planned, implemented and monitored. Ecosystem restoration typically aims to restore ecosystem functioning, often through removing or mitigating significant human impacts. Interventions often aim to restore functional ecosystem units: in freshwater projects this can mean entire catchments, but in practice is often confined to smaller rural sub-catchments. Restoration is often planned, funded and carried out through public sector partners, and monitoring often prioritises ecological, biophysical and hydrological parameters.

Nature-based solutions, on the other hand, aim to support sustainable development by responding to societal challenges such as climate change mitigation, food security and flood risk. Each intervention is planned based on the scale of the challenge and the benefits required, and involves the collaboration of groups from across public and provide sectors. In this way, nature-based solutions have the potential to unlock more diverse sources of funding than traditional restoration approaches, such as through corporate investment and crowdfunding. Project monitoring often focuses on how well societal goals have been achieved through the use of nature-based solutions.

Balancing social and environmental needs in times of crisis

Nature-based solutions offer valuable tools to address the urgent need to achieve sustainable development and societal needs in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises. By responding to pressing social and economic needs they can potentially provide stronger arguments for environmental interventions than those based solely on the need for ecosystem restoration.

However, this utilitarian and human-centred framing brings inherent risks. Echoing previous debates over ecosystem services, nature-based solutions may focus attention largely on aspects of nature that are obviously useful, predictable and commodifiable. However, nature is inherently complex and dynamic: there are tradeoffs in what services it generates and for whom, and many of these services are irreplaceable even if they are not understood to be immediately responding to societal challenges. More broadly, nature has significant intrinsic value, and is worthy of conservation and restoration in its own right.

The eight criteria in the IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions. Image: IUCN

The IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions holds the potential to help mitigate these risks. Its eight criteria and associated indicators reflect insights from conservation practice and restoration ecology. Each criteria is equally important for guiding and evaluating action. For example, the standard requires all nature-based solutions to maintain and enhance biodiversity. It also highlights the likelihood of tradeoffs, and specifies the need for adaptive management in response to unpredictable changes in complex socio-ecological systems.

Whilst ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to consider the different goals and scopes of the two approaches. The IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions offers a framework to help navigate the challenges of working with a wide range of societal actors – such as businesses – who may not be traditionally involved in environmental management. What matters is finding ways of living and working with nature that benefits both ecosystems and people.

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Adapted from:

Kerry Waylen, Kirsty Blackstock, Alhassan Ibrahim, Esther Carmen, Keith Marshall, (2022), “Restoration or Nature-based Solutions: What’s the difference and why does it matter?”, Briefing Note, November 2022, MERLIN Project, James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland.

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