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Ecosystem-based approaches

Rotterdam.jpgGreen space in Rotterdam
Image credits: Marthe Derkzen, The nature of cities, 2017

Ecosystem-based approaches for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction:

  • increase resilience,
  • reduce social and environmental vulnerability,
  • generate multiple socio-economic benefits and contribute to achieve climate change adaptation objectives, but also several multi-lateral environmental agreements and sectoral policy objectives (e.g. haltering biodiversity loss, water quality or agricultural and forest management),
  • restore, maintain and improve ecosystems health,
  • enhance governance of natural resources with respect to the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services,
  • empower people and provide jobs and business opportunities.

The EU Adaptation Strategy recognises multiple benefits of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and recommends better incorporating this multi-functional approach into the assessment of adaptation options.

Ecosystem-based approaches include several related concepts, often based on different policy perspectives, such as Nature-based Solutions (NBS), Green Infrastructure (GI) and Blue Infrastructure, Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM), ecosystem-based approaches to Disaster Risk Reduction (eco-DRR).

Policy framework

The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244 final) states that ecosystems and their services should be maintained and enhanced by 2020. This will be supported by the establishment of  green infrastructure and the restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems (target 2). Under this target, the action 6b sets up that the European Commission will develop a Green Infrastructure Strategy to promote the deployment of green infrastructure in the EU in urban and rural areas.

Within this framework, the Commission adopted in 2013 the Green Infrastructure Strategy “Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital” (COM(2013) 249 final), with a direct reference to the EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change to consolidate actions on green infrastructure, ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

In 2019, the EC published two guidance documents to help planners, policymakers and businesses address socio-economic challenges, while also protecting and restoring Europe's nature:

  1. the EU Guidance document on a strategic framework for further supporting the deployment of EU-level green and blue infrastructure SWD(2019) 193 final, which fosters a more strategic and integrated approach for investments in EU-level GI projects and also provides information on existing funding sources. The accompanying Joint Science for Policy Report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Environment Agency (EEA), the European Topic Centre on Urban, Land, and Soil Systems (ETC/ULS) and the DG Environment of the EC presents Geospatial methods, data and tools to support strategic green infrastructure and ecosystem restoration.
  2. the EU Guidance document on integrating ecosystems and their services in decision-making, which shows the wide range of benefits from nature to people, and possible ways to take better account of these benefits in policy, planning and business investment decisions. This documents consist of three documents: Part1, Part2, Part3.

Finally, these new guidance documents are complemented by an overview and progress report of Natural Capital Accounting in the European Union.

The Action Plan for nature, people and the economy is to improve the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives and boost their contribution towards reaching the EU's biodiversity targets for 2020. It also includes an action (number 12) concerns Green Infrastructure and provides two objectives: (a) Provide guidance to support the deployment of green infrastructure for better connectivity of Natura 2000 areas;(b) Support nature-based solutions projects through EU research and innovation policy and Horizon 2020 funds.

In addition, other EU polices are catalising the development of ecosystem-based approaches and green infrastructure: under the Water Framework Directive (for example, re-establishing the migration corridors for migratory fish species, ensuring ecological flows and reconnecting and restoring the aquatic habitats) and under the Floods Directive (for example, promoting floodplain restoration, implementing the  concept of more space for the rivers and water retention measures).  Via the respective Management Plans under these two Directives (River Basin Management Plans and Flood Risk Management Plans), Member States are often developing and implementing green or blue infrastructure measures. Disaster risk management policies are also, in synergy with climate change adaptation, increasingly taking on board ecosystem based approaches to reduce risk and increase resilience against hazards.

On the other hand, the EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change (COM(2013) 216 final) acknowledges the potential effects of climate change on the ecosystems and their services, and encourages ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and green infrastructure. The Evaluation of the 2013 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change (2018) shows a substantial increase in the knowledge base for adaptation. Nevertheless new knowledge gaps have emerged in some sectors, including ecosystem-based adaptation. Furthermore, the current Evaluation discusses the need for additional guidance on ecosystem-based adaptation, including guidance on the mobilisation of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation of infrastructure (Action 7 of the Strategy). 

On international level, two of the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets (10 and 15) aim to minimize the impact of climate change on ecosystems. Therefore extensive work related to ecosystem-based approaches linked to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction has been carried out, resulting in the synthesis reports (CBD Technical Series No. 85, 2016) of global experiences on ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation. COP14 (November 2018) has adopted a decision on voluntary guidelines for the design and effective implementation of ecosystem based approaches to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. The implementation of this voluntary guideline – based on the experiences and activities carried out by Parties – has been published in April 2019 (CBD Technical Series No. 93).

Furthermore, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (SFDRR) encourages “ecosystem-based approaches … to build resilience and reduce disaster risk“. It is recognized that both EbA and Eco-DRR are part of a multi-disciplinary, cross-cutting approach and an effective cooperation between them can enable stronger results in terms of increased resilience.

Finally, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds a ‘Database on ecosystem-based approaches to Adaptation’ (now included 37 in the Adaptation Knowledge Portal) providing examples of how Ecosystem-based Adaptation have contributed to sectoral development, including disaster risk reduction and biodiversity conservation.


Improving the knowledge base

This document gives a short overview of ecosystem-based initiatives at European level, also outlining the linked concepts of green infrastructure, ecosystem-based adaptation, natural water retention measures or nature-based solutions. 

There is a growing number of studies and publications in these fields that can be consulted in relevant platforms and websites depending on the focus of the objectives.



  • Studies, reports and factsheets on green infrastructure funded by the European Commission:
  • EU Research projects and publications that address Nature-Based Solutions approaches that include climate change adaptation:
  • LIFE programme supports ecosystem-based implementation projects relevant for climate change adaptation (e.g. conservational agriculture and forestry practices, green and blue infrastructure or urban climate adaptation and resilience):
  • The Biodiversity Information System for Europe, BISE, contains a wealth of online information on green infrastructure, including structured information on green infrastructure activities within the Member States
  • The Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Center DRMKC provides knowledge and evidence at all levels and at all stages of the Disaster Risk Management cycle (prevention, reduction, preparedness, response and recovery), including those disasters associated to climate change
  • The Natural Water Retention Measures –NWRM- platform gathers information on green infrastructure applied to the water sector, with a large catalogue of actions and case studies
  • The OPPLA platform purpose is to share practical knowledge on natural capital, ecosystem services and Nature-Based Solutions, offering a wide range of case studies, products and tools
  • The Nature-based Urban Innovation NATURVATION website contains information on almost 1000 examples of Nature-Based Solutions from across 100 European cities that contribute to adapt the urban system to climate change
  • The platform ThinkNature is a case study and resources hub dedicated to Nature-Based Solutions


Supporting investment and funding

Given the wide cross benefits and multifunctional dimension of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation, several financing options at EU-level can be applied to support them. Information on financing opportunities currently available, including Structural Funds, Cohesion Fund, European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. LIFE, H2020 and others, can be found here.

In general, adaptation funding can be combined from different sources, and many of them also support ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation.


National initiatives on ecosyste-based approaches in European countries

EU Member States have developed a wide range of GI-related activities regarding the national policy framework, mainstreaming GI into the sectoral policies, enhancing the knowledge base and implementing specific GI projects.  This information can be found in the Biodiversity Information System for Europe (BISE).

Furthermore, the important role of Ecosystem-based Adaptation to enhance local resilience is recognised in city networks concerning the European municipalities, e.g. the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, C40 Cities, the Making cities resilient campaign (UNISDR), the Resilient Cities annual conferences (Local Governments for Sustainability, ICLEI), and the100 Resilient Cities (Rockefeller Foundation) .