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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 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). The European Commission announced the future adoption of a new EU strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change. A Blueprint outlining the Commission’s first ideas on this new policy was published in 2020 and expresses the need to further enhance the use of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation. In particular, the paper emphasises the necessity for a better quantification and communication of nature-based solutions’ benefits to decision-makers and practitioners.

As a core part of the European Green Deal, in 2020 the European Commission also adopted the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 (COM(2020) 380 final), defining clear objectives for protecting nature and reversing the degradation of ecosystems. The strategy acknowledges nature restoration as a key nature-based solution which contributes to both climate change mitigation and adaptation. Under the framework set by the strategy, in 2021 the Commission will put forward a proposal for legally binding EU nature restoration targets to restore degraded ecosystems, in particular those with the most potential to capture and store carbon and to prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters. Moreover, the 2030 strategy promotes the integration of nature-based solutions into urban planning, including in public spaces, infrastructure, and the design of buildings and their surroundings.

Fostered by the previous 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy, 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 Commission published a review report on the progress of its implementation, summarizing the lessons learned and providing recommendations for future action. In particular, the review recommends a greater emphasis on the economic, social and other co-benefits arising from GI and ecosystem-based solutions, as also highlighted by the new Adaptation to Climate Change: Blueprint for a new, more ambitious EU strategy — Climate-ADAPT (europa.eu).

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.

In addition, other EU polices are catalysing 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 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.




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 hereThe new EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 highlighted that a significant proportion of the 25% of the EU budget dedicated to climate action will be invested on biodiversity and nature-based solutions. In the EU’s next framework programme, Horizon Europe, starting in 2021, nature-based solutions will be further tested, deployed, promoted and their benefits and impacts assessed.

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


National initiatives on ecosystem-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 (UNDRR), the Resilient Cities annual conferences (Local Governments for Sustainability, ICLEI), and the100 Resilient Cities (Rockefeller Foundation) .