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Contributions of Nature-Based Solutions to Reduce Peoples’ Vulnerabilities to Climate Change across the Rural Global South

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Nature-based solutions (NbS) - working with and enhancing nature to address societal challenges - are increasingly being featured in climate change adaptation policy and plans. While there is growing evidence that NbS can reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts in general, there is a lack of understanding on the mechanisms through which this can be achieved, particularly in the Global South. To address this, we analyse 85 nature-based interventions in rural areas across the Global South, and factors mediating their effectiveness, based on a systematic map of peer-reviewed studies encompassing a wide diversity of ecosystems, climate impacts, and intervention types. We develop and apply an analytical framework of people’s social-ecological vulnerability to climate change, in terms of six pathways of vulnerability reduction: social and ecological exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Most cases (95%) report a reduction in vulnerability, primarily by lowering ecosystem sensitivity to climate impacts (73% of interventions), followed by reducing social sensitivity (52%), reducing ecological exposure (36%), increasing social adaptive capacity (31%), increasing ecological adaptive capacity (19%) and/or reducing social exposure (14%). An analysis of mediating factors shows that social dimensions are equally important as technical factors in NbS to achieving equitable and effective outcomes. Attention to the distinct social and ecological pathways through which vulnerability is reduced helps to harness the multiple benefits of working with nature in a warming world.
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Contributions of nature-based solutions to reducing people’s vulnerabilities to
climate change across the rural Global South
Authors: Stephen Woroniecki
1, 2
, Femke A. Spiegelenberg
1
, Alexandre Chausson
2
, Beth Turner
2,3
, Isabel
Key
1,4
, Haseeb Md. Irfanullah
5
, Nathalie Seddon
2
1. Linköping University, Department of Thematic Studies, Environmental Change Unit, Sweden
2. Nature-based Solutions Initiative, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PS,
United Kingdom
3. Centre d’Étude de la Forêt, Département Des Sciences Biologiques, Université Du Québec à
Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada
4. Changing Oceans Group, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
5. Center for Sustainable Development, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), Dhanmondi,
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Corresponding author email: stephen.woroniecki@liu.se
Postal Address: Linköping University, Department of Thematic Studies/Environmental Change, 581 83
Linköping, Sweden
Abstract
Nature-based solutions (NbS) - working with and enhancing nature to address societal challenges - are
increasingly being featured in climate change adaptation policy and plans. While there is growing
evidence that NbS can reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts in general, there is a lack of
understanding on the mechanisms through which this can be achieved, particularly in the Global
South. To address this, we analyse 85 nature-based interventions in rural areas across the Global
South, and factors mediating their effectiveness, based on a systematic map of peer-reviewed studies
encompassing a wide diversity of ecosystems, climate impacts, and intervention types. We develop
and apply an analytical framework of people’s social-ecological vulnerability to climate change, in
terms of six pathways of vulnerability reduction: social and ecological exposure, sensitivity, and
adaptive capacity. Most cases (95%) report a reduction in vulnerability, primarily by lowering
ecosystem sensitivity to climate impacts (73% of interventions), followed by reducing social sensitivity
(52%), reducing ecological exposure (36%), increasing social adaptive capacity (31%), increasing
ecological adaptive capacity (19%) and/or reducing social exposure (14%). An analysis of mediating
factors shows that social dimensions are equally important as technical factors in NbS to achieving
equitable and effective outcomes. Attention to the distinct social and ecological pathways through
which vulnerability is reduced helps to harness the multiple benefits of working with nature in a
warming world.
Keywords: Nature-based solutions; climate change adaptation; climate change vulnerability; social-
ecological systems
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© 2022 by the author(s). Distributed under a Creative Commons CC BY license.
1. INTRODUCTION
As the climate warms, people around the globe are increasingly suffering from the impacts of climate
change (IPCC AR6WGIISPM, 2022), with the poorest communities being worst hit and sustainable
development severely limited (Paavola and Adger, 2006; Olsson et al., 2014; Roy et al., 2018; IPCC
AR6WGIISPM, 2022). There is a large and growing gap between needs and action on climate change
adaptation, especially in the Global South, and hence an urgent need to develop and scale up effective
approaches to address climate impacts especially for those most at-risk.
Nature-based solutions (NbS) offer the potential to help bridge that gap, by providing affordable, long-
term solutions that can support adaptation to climate change. NbS involve working with nature,
including through its protection, restoration, or sustainable management, to address societal
challenges whilst providing local benefits for people and biodiversity (Seddon 2022). NbS represent a
range of interventions, such as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), ecosystem-based disaster risk
reduction (Eco-DRR), locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), or agroecological methods that harness
ecological interactions and biodiversity, such as agroforestry (Vignola et al., 2015). There is a
substantial body of evidence demonstrating the potential of NbS to support adaptation to climate
change, such as through reducing the effect of climate impacts such as floods, water scarcity and
wildfire (reviewed in Chausson, Turner et al. 2020). Importantly, NbS can address a range of other
societal challenges, including climate change mitigation and food and water security. Furthermore,
well-designed NbS can be more holistic and integrative than analogous infrastructural adaptation
options; they have the capacity to address interacting societal challenges simultaneously, and reduce
trade-offs between these outcomes (Smith et al., 2021; Seddon et al., 2022; Woroniecki et al., 2019;
Chausson, Turner et al., 2020, Portner et al., 2021)
1
.
It is widely recognized that NbS have particular relevance for climate change adaptation in the Global
South (Jones et al., 2012; Munang et al., 2014; IPCCSRCCL, IPCCSR1.5; IPBES, 2019; Seddon et al.,
2020b; Seddon et al., 2021; IPCC AR6WGIISPM, 2022). In many parts of the Global South, people have
1
As the Secretariat of the Convention of Biological Diversity states: “EbA and Eco-DRR have gained traction
because they provide multiple benefits for people, ecosystems and biodiversity, enable planning for CCA and
DRR on longer time scales, are cost-effective compared to traditional engineered infrastructure, and
emphasize community participation and the use of traditional and local knowledge systems. Due to their
participatory nature and cross-sectoral approaches to adaptation and disaster risk reduction, EbA and Eco-DRR
can achieve multiple policy objectives, including local, regional and national strategies for climate change,
disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development, among others.” (CBD, 2019)
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been working with nature to address climate variability for millennia (Smith et al. 2021). Furthermore,
NbS may be particularly relevant in lower income countries, given high dependency on local
ecosystems for basic needs and livelihood strategies, and a lack of finance for technological or
infrastructural approaches (Mercer et al., 2012; Munang et al., 2014; Doswald et al., 2014; Fedele et
al. 2021).
A recent study of the first round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), lower income nations were found to
disproportionately include NbS as part of adaptation plans compared to the global average (Seddon
et al., 2020a), due in part to the long traditions of working with nature across lower income countries,
and the influence of the Development and Conservation sector across these (Seddon et al., 2020b;
Smith et al., 2021). Yet, recent analyses have demonstrated a bias in research on NbS effectiveness
towards the Global North, including for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation
(Sudmeier-Rieux et al. 2021). For example, a recent systematic map of the evidence for NbS for
addressing climate change impacts by Chausson, Turner et al. (2020) showed that only 15% of studies
involving nature-based actions are from the Global South. The aims of this study are to address the
lack of evidence on the effectiveness of NbS for addressing climate impacts in the Global South (which
we define as Low or lower-middle income countries as defined by the World Bank country income
categories (World Bank, 2020))
and understand the mechanisms and pathways through which this can
be achieved.
To understand pathways for enabling adaptation, the concept of vulnerability to climate change has
been frequently applied in climate adaptation research and action (Simpson et al., 2021; Singh et al.,
2021; IPCC AR6WGII, 2022). Vulnerability is defined herein as the propensity of a given system to be
adversely affected by climate change-related hazards because of changes to valued ecological and
social functioning and processes (after IPCC, 2014). People’s vulnerability is determined by three
components: their exposure and sensitivity to climate change impacts, as well as their adaptive
capacity to respond to (potential) damage (see Box 1 for definitions).
To reduce people’s vulnerability,
an adaptation action needs to reduce exposure and/or sensitivity, and/or increase people’s adaptive
capacity. A vulnerability approach is an insightful way to explore adaptation because it is determined
by and thus brings attention to the systemic conditions which influence how climate impacts affect
people’s lives. This approach also allows understanding the diverse ways in which nature-based
solutions act to influence human adaptation as explained below. In fact, no previous study has
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outlined distinct social and ecological pathways to reducing vulnerability to climate change through
NbS or otherwise.
Box 1 - Glossary of key terms used in the study
Concept Definition
Nature-based
Solutions (NbS)
Actions that involve working with nature, including through its protection,
restoration, or sustainable management, to address societal challenges whilst
providing local benefits for people and biodiversity. (Seddon 2022)
Social-ecological
system
Integrated system of ecosystems and human society with reciprocal feedback
and interdependence (Biggs et al. 2015)
Adaptation
The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects
on social-ecological systems, in order to moderate harm to the system or
exploit beneficial opportunities. (after IPCC 2021)
Vulnerability
Propensity of a given system to be adversely affected by climate change-related
hazards because of changes to valued ecological and social functioning and
processes. (after IPCC, 2014)
Exposure
The extent to which either ecological attributes (i.e. species or ecosystems) or
social attributes (i.e. infrastructure, assets or livelihoods) are subject to climate
change impacts through their presence in a particular location. (After Seddon et
al., 2020)
Sensitivity
Degree to which system attributes are affected or altered as a result of
pressures. (after Seddon, 2020)
Adaptive
Capacity
Ability of units that provide system functions and processes to adjust to
potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to
consequences. (after IPCC, 2014)
Global South
Low or lower-middle income countries as defined by the World Bank country
income categories (World Bank, 2020)
Mediating
factors
Elements that influences the outcome of the intervention, either as a barrier or
as an enabler. Mediating factors can fall under different categories, including
governance, land tenure security, economic aspects, and people’s values. (after
Seddon 2022)
Institutions
Informal and formal mechanisms that shape recurring and continuous
behaviour in a social setting (Huntington, 1996), including legal rules and
economic structures as well as cultural norms, religious rules, and societal
systems (c.f. North, 1991; Ostrom 2006; Young, 2011; Partelow and Winkler,
2016).
Historical
institutions
Those relevant institutions that have altered the social-ecological system’s
contextual conditions in the past. (own definition)
Contemporary
institutions
Those relevant institutions active when an NbS is implemented. (own definition)
Intrinsic
institutions
Those relevant institutions integral to the NbS itself, part of its constitutive
character and conduct. (own definition)
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Over the past decade, there has been a focus on unpacking vulnerability according to its social and
ecological dimensions (Cinner et al., 2012; Thiault, et al., 2018; Depietri, 2020; Seddon et al., 2020a.
Indeed each of its three main components can be further divided into social or ecological exposure,
sensitivity, or adaptive capacity (see Box 2). Though these conceptualizations are not focused on
climate change rather vulnerability to any kind of shocks and stresses ― the frameworks help
contextualise people’s vulnerability as the property of a social-ecological system (SES) (see definitions
in Box 1) (Gallopin, 2006; Adger et al., 2009; Brink et al., 2016; Lavorel et al., 2020) and is most
appropriate for capturing the diverse effects of NbS on people’s vulnerability. Together and through
their interactions, the social and ecological components of vulnerability determine the vulnerability
of people who live in an SES. An NbS has potential to influence both social and ecological aspects of
vulnerability through changes to an SES (Seddon et al. 2020; Turner et al. 2022), because each NbS
intervention is embedded within a specific SES and - at least, when successful - forms a place-based
partnership between people and nature (Seddon et al. 2020; Palomo et al. 2021; Tzoulas et al. 2021;
Turner et al. 2022).
In turn, understanding both the social and ecological mechanisms by which these components of
vulnerability are reduced across lower income countries is crucial to support the robust incorporation
of NbS in climate change adaptation policy (Seddon et al., 2020b). Incorporating the often-neglected
social dimensions of vulnerability and NbS, and embedding them within an SES, contributes to
designing effective vulnerability reduction measures. For instance, Smith et al. (2021) showed how
social factors for NbS in Bangladesh (namely government’s policy support to NbS; participatory
delivery; strong and transparent governance; and secured finance and land tenure) help to maximize
NbS benefits and manage trade-offs.
No previous study has attempted to determine the state of the evidence of the pathways through
which people’s vulnerability to climate change can be addressed through nature-based adaptation
actions. A recent study by Turner et al. (2022) provided an in-depth analysis of the specific mechanisms
by which NbS can help SES be resilient and respond to change, helping to illuminate the sensitivity and
adaptive capacity dimensions of the vulnerability framework. Yet here we provide the first analysis of
all of social and ecological pathways through which NbS shape people’s vulnerability, focusing on rural
areas of lower income countries.
To analyze how NbS shape people’s climate vulnerabilities, we elaborate a social-ecological
vulnerability framework to structure evidence reported across a dataset of systematically collected
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peer-reviewed studies (Chausson, Turner et al., 2020). We conceptualise effectiveness in terms of
reducing people’s social or ecological vulnerabilities through the pathways of exposure, sensitivity,
and adaptive capacity. Using this framework, we analyse 85 interventions across 66 separate studies
across rural contexts in lower income countries to understand whether and how NbS reduce people’s
vulnerabilities. We provide a description of the contextual diversity of the dataset according to key
social and ecological variables. We also identify a set of specific social and ecological factors that
mediate the reduction of vulnerability through these pathways.
With this analysis we highlight the reported effectiveness of NbS for climate change vulnerability
reduction to characterize the evidence base and guide future evidence analysis. Acknowledging the
diverse, context-specific ways, in which vulnerability and vulnerability reduction is co-produced and
for whom, the study thus explores how effectiveness is mediated by social and ecological factors (cf.
Colloff et al., 2020; Osaka et al., 2021), a research gap identified by Welden, Chausson et al. (2021).
Our research questions are:
1. In which rural ecological, geographical and social contexts are NbS represented in, across
lower income countries?
2. What is the reported effectiveness of NbS in reducing people’s vulnerability, and through
which social-ecological pathways?
3. Which factors are reported to mediate the effectiveness of NbS in reducing people’s social-
ecological vulnerability?
2. THEORY
2.1 Conceptual Framework
Climate Change Vulnerability
We use an SES approach to construct a social-ecological vulnerability framework to reveal pathways
through which NbS shape vulnerability, and factors mediating these. Outlining distinct social and
ecological pathways to vulnerability reduction is a conceptual advance on previous analyses and
addresses issues of critical relevance to the Global South contexts; namely the integrated character of
vulnerability and the need to consider all aspects of NbS and their effects on local people.
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Nature-based Solutions and social-ecological vulnerability reduction
Our conceptualisation of nature-based vulnerability reduction builds on the social-ecological
vulnerability approach by making explicit i) how people are situated in, shape, and depend upon an
SES; ii) how people’s vulnerability to climate change depends on distinct components of social and
ecological exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity; iii) how NbS affect these components of
vulnerability, through vulnerability-reduction pathways; and iv) how place-based mediating factors
shape these pathways.
This approach makes clear how the processes of conserving, restoring and managing SES are central
to NbS (e.g., Nesshöver et al., 2017; Seddon et al., 2020a), and shape vulnerability beyond the flows
of ecosystem services (Turner et al., 2022). Our conceptualisation therefore contrasts with previous
conceptualisations of social-ecological vulnerability (see Thiault et al., 2018; Depietri, 2020; Seddon et
al., 2020a, which focused on “social” vulnerability mainly being influenced by a stressor’s impact on
ecological vulnerability and subsequent ecosystem service supply. This conceptual expansion of social-
ecological vulnerability was necessary to make visible non-ecological pathways through which NbS can
shape people’s vulnerabilities, directly or indirectly. Here, we use the term ‘ecological pathways’ to
denote the ways that NbS act upon the vulnerability of a system’s ecological attributes (systemic
ecological elements which people depend on or attribute value to). In contrast, ‘social pathways’
denote the vulnerability of social attributes (any asset or resource in a system that are of relevance
and value to people but not directly connected to an ecosystem, including people themselves).
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Figure 1 – Conceptual framework of people’s social-ecological vulnerability to climate change. The framework
accounts for six different components of people’s social-ecological vulnerability; exposure, sensitivity and
adaptive capacity, each of which has a social and ecological dimension. The arrows show how climate change
does not impact people directly but is rather shaped through these six pathways. It is these pathways that
enable NbS act upon the impacts of climate change, reducing vulnerability to climate change and ultimately
reducing the effect of the impacts (Figure 2).
Importantly, our conceptual framework frames vulnerability as both related to a climate hazard as
well as the conditions of the system itself (see Figure 1). This focus on the contextual conditions (e.g.,
place-based factors, particularly local institutions) of the SES impacted by a hazard makes explicit how
NbS are a function of the context (including social-ecological interactions) in which they sit (Figure 2).
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Figure 2 – Conceptualisation of NbS and its effects as part of a social-ecological system. The green and blue
colors represent the ecological and social dimensions of the NbS, respectively. NbS, which, like the
vulnerability that they act upon, are a function of an SES context and processes. Therefore, NbS outcomes
necessarily feedback on these contexts and processes
3 METHOD
3.1 Data Collection
We draw on the dataset from the global systematic map of NbS for adaptation compiled by Chausson,
Turner et al. (2020), updating it to include studies through April 2020 in Low and Lower-Middle-Income
Countries (World Bank, 2020). In total, we identified 68 studies, published in English in academic
journal articles and recorded on Web of Science and Scopus. These studies captured 87 interventions
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in total. The data collection methodology, including the steps of scoping, searching, and selection can
be found in the Supplementary Material (Appendix 1). We further excluded cases where no human
subject (social group, community or otherwise) was explicitly mentioned in the relevant study and
those that did not specify a scientific methodology for compiling and assessing their results. Two cases
were removed from the dataset for not fulfilling these criteria, resulting in a final dataset of 85
interventions.
3.2 Data Coding
The coding strategy is based on our conceptual framework on the contextual variables of NbS, the
pathways of social-ecological vulnerability, as well as mediating factors. These aspects of the
framework and their definitions guided data extraction for specific intervention cases, associated with
one or more climate impacts (see Supplementary Material Appendix 2). Each article could contain one
or more intervention cases. We advise care in interpreting the evidence reported, as the prevalence
of evidence for any category without our framework (e.g. mediating factors, or a given vulnerability
pathway) is influenced by the original studies’ focus.
Context variables
To describe the context, we coded this dataset according to country of study focus, income level of
country, ecosystem type, climate change impact type, and type of intervention (c.f. Chausson, Turner
et al. (2020) for the methodology). We also made a categorization of beneficiary groups through an
inductive approach using the available information. Most commonly such groups were classed by
livelihood group, which is a commonly used variable in frameworks of social-ecological interactions in
SES research in the Global South (e.g., Daw et al., 2016).
Institutions
Each intervention was reviewed to examine how institutions were developed or built upon to
implement NbS or how institutions directly altered the contextual conditions in which the NbS
occurred. The coders firstly identified any institutions, defined as informal and formal mechanisms
that shape recurring and continuous behaviour in a social setting (Huntington, 1996), including legal
rules and economic structures as well as cultural norms, religious rules, and societal systems (c.f.
North, 1991; Ostrom, 2005; Young, 1986; Partelow and Winkler, 2016). Those identified institutions
that were relevant to the NbS operation or its context, improving/exacerbating climate change
impacts and/or affecting components of human vulnerability were coded for.
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We categorised these institutions as either historical, contemporary, or intrinsic (c.f. Woroniecki,
2019). Historical institutions are those relevant institutions that have altered the system’s contextual
conditions in the past. Contemporary institutions are mechanisms active when an NbS is
implemented. Intrinsic institutions are integral to the NbS itself, part of its constitutive character and
conduct. The institutional analysis allows for further exploration of the influence of institutions on NbS
pathways. It is not exhaustive and limited by the extent to which study authors acknowledge and
conceptualise the institutions.
Vulnerability-Reduction Pathways
Our social-ecological vulnerability framework conceptualises if and how nature-based interventions
identified in the dataset intervene in a particular system to affect social-ecological vulnerability. We
first categorised if the intervention was reported to have a positive, negative, mixed, or unclear effect
on the vulnerability of the groups in question depending upon the outcome statements identified in
the case studies (see Chausson, Turner et al. (2020) for details of the methodology). Impacts were
positive when one dimension of vulnerability was reportedly reduced and no other dimensions were
reported to worsen. Impacts were mixed when one dimension was reduced, and another was
worsened, or when the direction of effect (+ve or -ve) on vulnerability differed between social groups.
Negative impacts were recorded where dimensions were only worsened. This allows characterizing
the evidence in terms of reported effectiveness, in order to guide future analyses. This should not be
used to generalize effectiveness of a particular intervention type, as the heterogeneity of evidence
and underpinning study methodologies precludes weighing reported categorical outcomes by
strength of evidence.
The analysis of vulnerability reduction uses the IPCC’s definition of vulnerability (box 1
).
We analyse
how NbS shape vulnerability by acting upon social and ecological functions and processes (which we
call attributes) through the six possible distinct pathways of social and ecological exposure, sensitivity
and/or adaptive capacity of the system (Box 2). To do this we disaggregated vulnerability effects
according to social and ecological pathways following definitions given in Box 1, assuming that
whether social (e.g., livestock, or built infrastructure) or ecological (e.g., native mangroves), these
attributes of SES are vulnerable to climate change in terms of their exposure, sensitivity and adaptive
capacity. A given NbS could potentially affect vulnerability through all six pathways simultaneously.
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The social and ecological pathways to vulnerability reduction are equal and distinct in terms of their
placement within the vulnerability reduction framework, and do not precede or proceed from one
another. If an intervention is coded for multiple vulnerability reduction pathways, these are to be
understood as distinct contributions to reducing people’s vulnerability. Where a pathway was
assessed to transition to another pathway, such as where an intervention reduces soil erosion to
protect mangroves from sea level rise (ecological vulnerability reduction), which then protect social
attributes such as a village from climate impacts (social vulnerability reduction), we only included the
first pathway of vulnerability reduction, to avoid double counting. We did not speculate on indirect
vulnerability reduction effects not explicitly detailed in the study. When describing the evidence, we
note whether pathways acted independently within the system to reduce vulnerability (additive
effects), or synergistically (for example through cascading influence which overall trigger greater
vulnerability reduction).
A necessary criterion is that there is a visible and direct contribution of NbS to people’s vulnerability
to climate-related stressors. Any study that did not show this was removed at the quality appraisal
stage (see below). Vulnerability was not analysed solely in relation to specific climate change hazards,
but rather to the effects of the NbS on vulnerability to climate-related stressors more broadly. We
considered vulnerability as co-produced between a given SES, its people, and their interaction with
environmental stressors, including climate hazards. This enabled a more in-depth analysis of what
occurred in the interventions, given that they were not necessarily implemented to address climate
hazards.
Box 2 Definitions of the six Vulnerability Reduction Pathways
Vulnerability
Reduction
Pathways
Ecological Definition Social Definition
Exposure
Extent to which species or
ecosystems, environmental
functions, services, of value to
people in a given system are subject
to pressures (floods, droughts,
landslides, fires, etc.) through their
presence in a particular location. It
is determined by the intensity,
duration and frequency of events,
geomorphology and the extent of
use and management of natural
resources by human societies.
(Seddon et al., 2020b)
Presence of people, livelihoods, household
assets, resources, infrastructure, economic,
community or cultural assets in places and
settings that could be adversely affected. (IPCC,
2014)
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Sensitivity Degree to which ecosystem
structure and function alters as a
result of perturbations. (Seddon et
al., 2020b)
Degree to which these people, livelihoods,
household assets, resources, infrastructure,
economic, community or cultural assets are
affected, either adversely or beneficially, by
climate variability or change. The effect may be
direct (e.g., a change in crop yield in response to
a change in the mean, range or variability of
temperature) or indirect (e.g., damages caused
by an increase in the frequency of coastal
flooding due to sea-level rise). (IPCC, 2014)
Adaptive capacity
Ability of units that provide
ecological functions and processes
(species, ecosystems, landscapes)
to adjust to potential damage, to
take advantage of opportunities, or
to respond to consequences. (IPCC,
2014)
Ability of the units that provide valued functions
and processes (households, communities, social
and cultural institutions) to adjust to potential
damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or
to respond to consequences (of climate change).
(IPCC, 2014)
Note: In coding, we differentiated social
sensitivity and adaptive capacity according to a
temporal scheme. While Sensitivity relates to
present effects (i.e., those that were shown to
affect the sensitivity of the system now), adaptive
capacity builds capacity to response to potential
future changes.
Mediating Factors
We also conducted an inductive analysis of mediating factors, i.e., elements stated to modify the
intervention’s social and ecological pathways of reducing vulnerability. This entailed identifying any
study text passages indicating conditioning effects and variables on intervention outcomes. These
passages were extracted and then through an inductive process, analyzed to produce emergent
mediating factor categories and sub-categories. This coding resulted in four inductively-derived
categories (i.e., social, technical, economic, political, as well as combination), which nevertheless
closely align with analysis of such factors (Nalau et al., 2018). We then coded each passage by its
corresponding category. Where institutions were coded as mediating the effectiveness of an
intervention, these were included as a political mediating factor.
3.3 Verification
To ensure consistency and reliability in coding of interventions/studies, all coding decisions were
verified by a second coder, who checked coding extracts in accordance with the definitions of the six
pathways and mediating factors. Discrepancies or uncertainties in regarding the coding and definitions
were resolved through regular meetings. To improve inter-coder reliability, 48 intervention-cases
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(56% of intervention-cases) were coded by both coders independently, with any identified
discrepancies resolved before coding independently.
3.4 Data Analysis
Interventions were coded with both quantitative (i.e., binary and numerical) and qualitative (i.e., text-
based) data extraction columns. This enabled descriptive statistical analysis and in-depth qualitative
analysis to explore patterns, elucidate paradigmatic examples and explore relationships between
different variables (see Supplementary Information). The evidence base was also characterised
through descriptive statistics, reporting the number of studies with respect to contextual parameters
(e.g., geography, climate impacts, and ecosystem types) (section 3.1). We describe the evidence base
in terms of absolute numbers and percentages of intervention-cases for each category.
4. RESULTS
4.1 Contextual diversity
Research Question (RQ): In which ecological, geographical and social contexts are NbS represented
across the rural Global South?
Our dataset is highly heterogeneous in relation to geography, climate impacts, ecosystem type,
intervention type, and institutional diversity. In other words, few of the same configurations of
country, climate impact, ecosystem type, intervention type, and institutional set-up occur more than
once.
Geographic distribution of studies
The studies were found across 28 low income and lower-middle-income countries (Figure 3a). A few
countries are overrepresented in the dataset, notably Kenya and Ethiopia (14 and 11 interventions,
respectively), whilst most account for only one, two or three interventions (Figure 3). The top five
countries with the greatest number of interventions reported countries were Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal
with six interventions, and Indonesia and Philippines with five interventions.
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Figure 3 (a) shows the geographical distribution of countries represented in the dataset. Figure 3b
shows the five most commonly occurring climate impacts and the number of separate interventions in
which they occurred. Figure 3c shows the five most commonly occurring ecosystem types and the
number of separate interventions in which they occurred.
The African and Asian continents were well represented, while no countries from Latin America or the
Caribbean were included. Most countries in this region are upper-middle, or high income (World Bank,
2020), and for those that are lower income, including Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua, no studies
were found. However, there are marked regional disparities: Whilst East Africa is well represented,
many African countries did not have a single study. Likewise, in Asia, South Asia was often counted,
with Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan all with relatively higher representation, whilst studies in
countries in South-East and Central Asia were rare. Europe was covered by a single intervention in
Ukraine. Only one Small Island Developing State (SIDS) (Vanuatu) was recorded (despite other SIDS
being captured in the Systematic Map, these were not low or lower-middle income countries).
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Climate Impacts
Eighteen climate impact types were identified, with most interventions addressing one impact, up to
a maximum of 9 (mean = 1.6). The representation of climate impacts across the dataset is skewed,
with 11 climate impacts found in five or more cases (Figure 4), and four climate impacts represented
in 10 or more (the category ‘other climate’ impact refers to all other kinds of impact that were not
represented in one of the coded categories) (Figure 3b).
Ecosystem Type
We found interventions across 22 ecosystem categories (including combinations of different types
addressed in a single intervention). Most intervention cases (68%) were in created forest (16),
followed by several terrestrial and coastal ecosystems (Figure 3c). The strong presence of sub-tropical
or tropical grasslands, forests and mangroves in the dataset coincides with the presence of most cases
in lower latitudes.
Intervention Type
Most interventions (35 interventions, 41%) involved a combination of actions in natural or semi-
natural ecosystems, followed by interventions in novel ecosystems (21, 25%)
2
. Few interventions
involved protection (11), management (6), restoration (6), or the use of a mix of novel and non-novel
ecosystems (4).
Institutions
Intrinsic institutions were identified in 52% of cases (44 interventions), historical institutions in 49% of
cases (42 interventions) and contemporary institutions in 32% of cases (27 interventions).
Historical institutions
Where reported, historical institutions most often mediated the vulnerability reduction efforts for
different groups by shaping social-ecological interactions of the context in which NbS intervene. For
example, in a case involving land exclosures to foster grassland regeneration, historical conflict
2
Note: Novel ecosystems do not include interventions directly occurring on the agricultural matrix (e.g.,
agroforestry) since these were excluded from the dataset (see Chausson, Turner et al. (2020) for exclusion
criteria). The dataset did however include interventions harnessing surrounding ecosystems (through
protection, restoration, or other forms of management) to reduce vulnerability of agricultural systems to
climate change (such as, vegetation bunds or wind breaks).
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management structures continued to favour sedentary communities over nomadic groups,
marginalizing the nomadic community and increasing their vulnerability to climate change impacts
(Ahmad et al., 2012). Their marginalisation led to more intensive grazing on limited available areas
outside the exclosures. This illustrates how historical institutions shape the context in which the NbS
is set, consequently shaping intervention design in relation to the exclosures, and the distribution of
outcomes across social groups.
Contemporary institutions
Contemporary institutions (i.e., those that exist in parallel to the intervention) also shape the
intervention context. For example, in a case involving assisted rehabilitation (restoration) of a seafront
area in the Philippines, formal institutions (land tenure and fish-pond licenses regulating access and
ownership) were critical to intervention design and implementation (Duncan et al., 2016). These
institutions strongly determined the rehabilitation process.
Contextual institutional change
Cases with both historical and contemporary institutions often show contextual institutional change,
mostly related to changes in ownership institutions. For example, Wairore et al. (2016) highlight how
communities in West Pokot County, Kenya shifted from nomadic traditional grazing and rotating
systems to sedentary approaches when colonialists implemented sub-national borders restrictions,
dividing land previously customarily shared by all pastoralists amongst colonial landowners. These
restrictions impeded migratory patterns, forcing communities into sedentary livelihoods. This shift in
livestock grazing induced by institutional change has been the main driver of land degradation in the
area. The institutional change also reiterated the need for formalising land ownership systems based
on customary traditions, which became part of the intrinsic institutions of the intervention that
included new agreements on land ownership and management, as well as the implementation and
management of exclosures.
Beneficiaries
We identified a wide range of intervention beneficiaries across the studies. Most were rural
communities whose livelihoods are directly dependent on and shaped by their local ecosystem. The
most common livelihood identified was arable or mixed sedentary farming, often small-scale, located
in regions characterized by riparian, savannah, montane or forest ecosystems. Most target groups also
held livestock, relying on agro-pastoralist systems. Nomadic pastoralists were also represented in
some studies but were generally studied only in relation to sedentary communities, rather than on
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their own. We also identified coastal or river community beneficiaries, whose main livelihood was
fishing.
4.2 Vulnerability reduction outcomes
RQ: What is the reported effectiveness of NbS in reducing people’s vulnerability, and through which
social-ecological pathways?
Figure 4 – Proportion of interventions displaying the three kinds of outcomes across the six
vulnerability-reduction pathways.
Figure 4 shows the proportions of reported positive, negative, and unclear or mixed outcomes of NbS
interventions in reducing vulnerability. Most of reviewed interventions (95%) reported positive
outcomes in distinct vulnerability pathways. These are discussed in detail in section 4.2.1.
We found nine instances of unclear or mixed outcomes in distinct vulnerability pathways, with mixed
cases often illustrating the importance of disaggregating intervention outcomes by social groups. For
example, in the case of a land degradation project in Gilgel-Abay watershed of northwest Ethiopia,
the outcomes of the implemented exclosures in the watershed differed between social groups
(Crossland et al., 2018). Poorer, marginalized farmers with little or no land, relying heavily on
communal grazing areas, were now excluded from using the land, forcing them to reduce livestock
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ownership and turn to other livelihoods. In contrast, richer, land-owning farmers perceived exclosures
as positive as the soil in the area regenerated and provided fodder.
In seven instances across five cases, interventions were reported to negatively affect distinct
vulnerability pathways (two interventions reported two distinct negative outcomes each). For
example, in an intervention funded by a Norwegian forestry company, in Dokolo district, Uganda,
forest protection and afforestation for carbon offsetting increased vulnerability in several ways and
yielded no positive outcomes for the community (Edstedt & Carton, 2018). First, it reduced the area
for potential cultivation, resulting in intensified agriculture and further degradation of available land
outside the offset sites. This led to loss of soil fertility and food production exacerbating the area’s
ecological sensitivity. At the same time, water-demanding Eucalyptus trees used in the offset project
depleted water resources in proximity to the village, forcing local people to travel further for
freshwater. Moreover, forest protection reduced firewood availability, making the community more
exposed to price fluctuations of wood on the market while removing a stream of local income,
ultimately increasing social sensitivity.
4.2.1 Pathways of vulnerability reduction
The most common pathway for vulnerability reduction was through reducing ecological sensitivity (62
interventions, 73%) (Figure 4). The next two highest categories were social sensitivity (44, 52%) and
social adaptive capacity (31, 36%). Ecological exposure was the next most represented pathway (26,
31%), whereby the intervention reduces the exposure of the system’s ecological attributes to a hazard.
Ecological adaptive capacity and social exposures were the least represented pathways of vulnerability
reduction (16, 19% and 12, 14% cases, respectively). Importantly, these results show NbS influenced
social-ecological vulnerability through distinct ecological and social pathways (See Box 3 for
paradigmatic examples and full list of cases attributed to each pathway).
Ecological Pathways
The analysis showed that in most cases (88%) NbS influenced people’s vulnerability through the
ecological pathways.
Ecological exposure
Nature-based Interventions addressed ecological exposure in different ways, mostly by establishing
natural barriers shielding ecological attributes to the climate hazard. For example, in Kutubdia Island,
Bangladesh, the creation of new oyster reefs on a tidal mud threatened by coastal erosion acted as a
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wave break, significantly reducing coastal hydraulic load, and ultimately reducing exposure of the
mudflat and salt marsh behind the reef to coastal erosion (Chowdhury et al., 2019). This facilitated
habitat restoration, boosting fish population, and in turn food production and income for the local
population, further reducing their vulnerability.
Ecological sensitivity
Most of the intervention cases indicated reduced ecological sensitivity, whereby regulating and
supporting ecosystem services were improved or restored, consequently decreasing the propensity
for damage of ecological attributes to stressors. This is highlighted in an intervention in Northwestern
Ethiopia involving exclosures to restore degraded land and soils in a montane ecosystem where people
mostly depended on agriculture and livestock farming (Mekuria et al. 2015). The intervention involved
seasonal protection of the lands from livestock grazing and harvesting grasses and roots, and spatial
zoning of communal grazing lands. It thereby shaped ecological sensitivity by reducing soil degradation
and improving vegetation cover. The soil became less sensitive to climate-related-soil erosion as the
vegetation cover reduced the impact of stressors like wind or water run-off. Further, the intervention
rehabilitated water gullies, reducing soil erosion due from environmental stressors. As the soil
improved, indigenous trees regenerated, vegetation cover improved, and fodder supply increased,
reducing the vulnerability of livestock farmers dependent on soils for fodder and water.
Ecological adaptive capacity
In a small subset of cases, NbS improved ecological adaptative capacity, often through the planting of
species that are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. For example, in Koyra sub-district,
Bangladesh, a village affected by coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, a mangrove forest comprised
of salt tolerant species was planted to address these impacts (Imam et al., 2016). Mangrove trees
improved the overall ability of the system to adjust to damage from saline intrusion.
Social Pathways
In a smaller but still sizeable proportion of cases (65%), we found that NbS influenced vulnerability
through the social components of people’s vulnerability.
Social exposure
Several interventions used natural barriers to reduce the exposure of social attributes to climate
hazards. For example, a rural community in Northern Ghana affected by fire and wind in a tropical
grassland ecosystem established fire belts and planted small patches of tall vegetation around their
village (Ngwese et al., 2018). The fire belts (vegetation free corridors) prevented bushfires from
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reaching the village, whereas planted tall plants protected rooftops against heavy winds. Reduced
exposure of material possessions and infrastructure thus reduced the vulnerability of the community.
Social sensitivity
In most cases of reduced social sensitivity, interventions strengthened social cohesion or diversified
livelihoods, minimising the impact of environmental stressors. For example, in the Panchase mountain
region in Nepal, the establishment of community forest management increased social cohesion and
inclusion through a social network, improving villagers’ access to community support in times of
difficulty (Adhikari et al., 2018). Furthermore, the community forest improved access to firewood and
timber, and diversified livelihoods by generating employment and income from improved ecosystem
goods. An education programme also improved capacities for ecosystem management and
strengthened community-based institutions, such as mechanisms to manage forest services,
platforms to discuss issues relating to their livelihoods, and participatory decision-making. Increased
cohesion, strengthened institutions, and increased streams of income provided the community with
the knowledge and material capacities to deal with climate change impacts locally.
Social adaptive capacity
Social adaptive capacity is often closely linked to social sensitivity. Where social adaptive capacity
improved, communities were better able to cope with and adjust to environmental change. For
example, in the Lenche Dima watershed in Ethiopia in a montane ecosystem, a multi-faceted
intervention established rangeland exclosures, multi-purpose tree plantations, and management,
education, and institution-building projects to foster community participation to address reduced
water availability and loss of food production (Descheemaeker et al., 2010). Beyond directly
addressing reduced water availability and food production, the intervention empowered the local
community, which was crucial to improve adaptive capacity. Education in natural resource
management, strengthened local institutions and generated new forms of income generation enables
people to adjust to change and and make more strategic adaptation decisions, by identifying problems
and potential solutions early, thereby reducing their vulnerability.
Box 3- Nature-based Interventions associated with a particular vulnerability pathway, and a paradigmatic
example of each pathway
Pathway Paradigmatic Example Case identifier (see
SI Appendix 2 for
case studies, and
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Appendix 3 for full
study references)
Ecological
Exposure
Created oyster reefs reduced hydraulic load on the coast
by reducing exposure to large waves and coastal erosion.
The community’s vulnerability improved as a result as
organism populations restored and the shoreline
remained intact, allowing the population to maintain
their livelihoods on the island rather than migrating to
the mainland. Chowdhury et al., 2019
2, 3, 4, 8, 14, 18, 19,
20, 25, 36, 42, 44,
46, 47, 48, 49, 50,
51, 54, 57, 58, 60,
66, 68, 75, 76, 77,
78, 80, 82, 84, 85
Ecological
Sensitivity
Exclosures and the limited harvesting of grasses and
roots restored land degradation, making the soil less
sensitive to climatic stressors. This reduced local
people’s vulnerability as the increased vegetation
provided cheap fodder and restored water gullies which
increased fresh water supply. Mekuria et al., 2015
2, 3, 5, 7, 8-19, 23-
30,31-38, 43-45, 47,
49, 51, 53-55, 57-
62, 63-79, 81-85
Ecological
Adaptive
Capacity
Planting of salt-tolerant mangrove trees improved the
system’s resilience to saline intrusion, provided constant
shade for under-story plants, and reducing wave height
in cases of extreme weather, increasing the system’s
ability to adjust to changing environmental conditions.
This reduced people’s vulnerability as the community’s
fresh water was less affected by saline intrusion and the
resilient trees provided a stable supply of firewood.
Imam et al., 2016
11, 15, 16, 30, 31,
34, 38, 44, 52, 53,
59, 68-71, 76, 81
Social Exposure The creation of natural barriers like fire belts and tall
vegetation reduced the exposure of the village to climate
hazards like fire and wind. By protecting the social
attributes, the intervention reduced the vulnerability of
the community. Ngwese et al., 2018
4, 7, 8, 20, 31, 42,
49, 55, 60, 80, 82,
84
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Social Sensitivity Landscape restoration and the implementation of a
community-managed forest diversified livelihoods,
increased social cohesion, and provided natural and
human capital. This made the community less sensitive
to the local effects of climate change and reduced their
vulnerability. Adhikari et al., 2018
1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13,
17, 18, 23, 26, 27,
29, 31-33, 38-41,
44, 45, 48, 52-57,
59, 60, 62, 64-66,
68-71, 76, 79, 80,
82, 83, 85
Social Adaptive
Capacity
Rangeland exclosures and the plantation of multi-
purpose trees were used as the basis for institution-
building and education of the local community. This
empowered the local community to make strategic
decisions about the changing environment and gave the
local the tools to adjust accordingly. Descheemaeker,
2010
1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10,
12, 13, 17-19, 23,
26, 27, 29, 31-33,
39-43, 45, 48, 52-
54, 56, 57, 59, 60,
62, 65, 68-71, 76,
79, 83
4.2.2 Vulnerability reduction through multiple pathway interactions
Multiple ecological pathways
Interventions were often reported to reduce vulnerability through multiple ecological pathways
simultaneously, either stemming from one or more intervention components addressing multiple
pathways. For example, in an intervention involving the creation of mud piles and flood barriers to
reduce exposure of agricultural land to flooding, the protection of native plants also provided a source
of natural pesticides, reducing the sensitivity of crops to disease.
In a case involving exclosures in Ethiopia, multiple ecological pathways synergized, creating cascading
impacts that increasingly reduced vulnerability (Crossland et al., 2018). Specifically, exclosures
reduced land degradation and increased soil biodiversity, thereby reducing soil sensitivity, while
improved soil conditions allowed for increased vegetation cover, providing shade and reduced runoff,
reducing ecological exposure to heat and flooding. The overall improved conditions of soil biodiversity,
landscape greenness and moisture levels improved the soil’s adaptive capacity to future
environmental stressors.
Multiple social pathways
In most cases where vulnerability was shaped by social pathways, multiple pathways were involved.
Social sensitivity was primarily addressed in combination with social exposure or adaptive capacity.
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For example, in an intervention involving the establishment of community-forests in Ethiopia,
medicinal plants and enhancement of recreational and aesthetic values improved local people’s well-
being while fostering communal participation (Woldie & Tadesse, 2019). In addition, the forest
diversified livelihoods, producing extra income streams to cope with drought-induced loss of food
production and of income, thereby increasing social adaptive capacity.
Multiple ecological and social pathways
Most interventions reduced vulnerability through ecological and social pathways simultaneously, with
pathways shaping vulnerability independently, or synergising. An example of a case where social and
ecological pathways complemented one another was an intervention of mangrove reforestation in
the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, combining training for local people and employment (McElwee et al.,
2017). The mangrove plantations functioned as shelter belts against waves and cyclones, thereby
protecting the coastal system against waves and cyclones. The intervention also provided vocational
training, thereby increasing local capacities to harness nature’s contributions and develop coping
strategies to environmental stress. Therefore this intervention reduced vulnerability through separate
ecological and social pathways, reducing vulnerability in complement rather than through interaction
and synergy.
In contrast, in an intervention involving exclosures to restore soil health in a tropical grassland
ecosystem in Ethiopia, social and ecological pathways interacted and synergised (Crossland et al.,
2018). A short period of protection reduced erosion, groundwater recharge, and increased grassland
vegetation cover, reducing the area’s ecological sensitivity to climatic shocks. Simultaneously,
exclosures brought farmers together through grassland restoration as a shared objective, reducing
land use conflict through cohesion and cooperation, and ultimately reducing farmers’ social sensitivity
to stressors. Reduced land-use conflicts and improved cooperation diminished pressure on the lands
leading to more sustainable ecosystem service management, facilitating ecological recovery. A
positive, reinforcing feedback loop was evident, as ecological recovery reduced communal conflicts
over now more abundant water, food, and land for cultivation. This demonstrates how an intervention
component (exclosures) can reduce vulnerability through reinforcing social and ecological pathways.
4.4 Mediating Factors
RQ: Which factors are reported to mediate the effectiveness of NbS in reducing people’s social-
ecological vulnerability?
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Figure 7 - Mediating factors Identified by type for the vulnerability reducing pathways, including
combinations of types, where no mediating factor was identified, and where the mediating factor was
unclear.
We found that 92% cases were reported to be associated with one or more mediating factors, classed
as technical (pertaining to intervention design specifics), social (pertaining to education and inclusion
of knowledge, values, and community members), economic (pertaining to income, inequality, and
poverty levels), or political (related to historical, contextual, and intrinsic institutions and pertaining
to issues of empowerment, ownership and access, conflict management). Sub-categories and
paradigmatic examples of each are shown Box 4. As Figure 7 shows, the most common mediating
factor types were political (including institutional factors), technical, and social, each mediating
outcomes in various ways. Only 16% of cases mentioned more than one type of mediating factor.
Box 4 - Specific mediating factors for the effectiveness of NbS in reducing vulnerability, and sub-
categories, with a paradigmatic example to explain each one.
Mediating
Factor
Sub-category Paradigmatic Example
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Technical Specific Design Specific resting period length to restore rangelands in
Tunisia was crucial to the level of success. Belgacem et al.,
2019
Education
Levels of education of the community prior to the
intervention proved to be key for intervention component
uptake. Formal education, for example, increased the
changes of accepting the new system of land management.
Safari et al., 2019
Inclusion of
community
Community inclusion supported positive social outcomes as
the empowered community and its cohesion reduced social
sensitivity. Community participation also allowed for
community-wide adoption of measures, which mediated
ecological outcomes. Descheemaeker et al., 2010
Inclusion of local
knowledge
Local knowledge of environmental conditions and local
community dynamics were essential in avoiding inequity in
the community. Woldie & Tadesse, 2019
Inclusion of values
Understanding the values that local people attach to local
ecosystems increased the sustainability of a mangrove
plantation in India. Badola & Hussain, 2005
Economic Income creation Outcomes of a community forest in Myanmar were limited
because people were unwilling to volunteer, i.e. they
required payment for their time. Lin et al., 2019
Poverty levels High levels of poverty in Myanmar constrained the
intervention because the poorest did not have resources to
spend time volunteering in management and decision-
making. Outcomes of vulnerability reduction were,
therefore, not necessarily community-wide. Lin et al., 2019
Conflict
management
Tribal conflict in Morocco was recognised as a constraint on
implementation, requiring the intervention to build on tribal
organisations to increase legitimacy. Derak et al., 2018
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Access and Tenure Clashing customary ownership and formal institutions forced
local people off their lands under an afforestation project
implemented in a top-down way, increasing people’s
vulnerability. Edsted & Carton, 2018
Technical Factors
Technical factors of intervention design were mostly reported to mediate positive outcomes. For
example, Belgacem et al. (2019) highlight an intervention reintroducing a traditional form of grazing,
resting, and rotating to restore rangelands in Southern Tunisia. Through different resting period
lengths, the intervention showed how the technical element of time mediated ecological pathways
outcomes in terms of degree of vegetation cover, density, and productivity and showed how resting
period should be adapted to precipitation and temperatures regimes.
Social Factors
Social factors identified by studies as mediating outcomes included education and inclusion of
knowledge, values, and community members. Here, education refers to either external factors where
prior level of education mediated the outcome (e.g., Safari et al., 2019), or internal factors, where
education was part of the intervention itself (e.g., Koutika, 2019). Some studies recognised the
importance of including local knowledge in intervention design for vulnerability reduction (Woldie &
Tadesse, 2019). Incorporation of local values in project implementation increased intervention
acceptance (Badola & Hussain, 2005; Descheemaeker et al., 2010), which in turn is crucial for its
adoption and overall success, thereby mediating vulnerability pathways that the intervention
addressed. Descheemaeker et al. (2010) also highlight how community inclusion and engagement
facilitated a watershed management intervention in Ethiopia. This strengthened social adaptive
capacity, building people’s capacity and confidence to deal climate change impacts as a community
while managing land ownership issues. High level of social acceptance facilitated community-wide
adoption of intervention, including watershed management, ultimately influencing ecological
pathways to vulnerability in terms of improved water flow and decreased soil degradation.
Economic factors
Economic mediating factors were less commonly reported, but had substantial influence when they
were. Such factors were either internal to the intervention, such as level of income generation of the
intervention (e.g. Lin et al., 2019; Baba & Hack, 2019), or external; relating to the economic status of
community members prior to NbS implementation (e.g. Lin et al., 2019; Ali & Rahut, 2020).
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For example, in an intervention involving new community-based forestry institutions in Myanmar,
Lin et al. (2019) highlights how high levels of poverty (external economic circumstances) hindered
participation and inclusion in decision-making of poorest households. In turn, decision-making for
forest management and income generation and allocation were biased towards wealthier
households, creating a differential effect on vulnerability reduction. Furthermore, most forest
activities were voluntary, excluding economically marginalized households who could not afford to
participate, in turn hindering the intervention’s implementation and limiting potential to reduce
vulnerability.
Political factors
Political mediating factors, including the historical, contextual, and intrinsic institutions, include
issues of empowerment, ownership and access, conflict management, and management of land and
ecosystem services (including who manages and how management occurs). Ownership and access
refer to issues of rights, often over land tenure, and clashing systems of ownership. Institutions
mediated both positive and negative vulnerability outcomes. For example, Edsted & Carton (2018)
report how the history of a reserve in Uganda was dominated by instability, where colonial
institutions clashed with customary land tenure systems. These conflicting institutions formed the
intervention backdrop, allowing afforestation for carbon sequestration on the lands of local people,
despite their customary land rights. These rights were not recognised in the intervention’s intrinsic
institutional mechanisms, namely the top-down management driven by the Ugandan government
and Norwegian forestry company. As a result, local people lost their lands and livelihoods,
compromising their adaptive capacity. Meanwhile Derak et al. (2018) showed that the lack of a
conflict-mediation mechanism in an intervention involving forest restoration in Northern Morocco
negatively influenced vulnerability outcomes by allowing inter-tribal competition to prevent
different groups from accessing benefits and reducing the legitimacy of the intervention in the eyes
of tribal organisations.
Some studies also recognised the influence of intrinsic institutions on social and ecological
vulnerability pathways in a wide range of NbS, particularly those focused on ecosystem management
and protection. Those mediating ecological pathways often focused on informal agricultural
institutions or influenced historical institutional change to shape social-ecological vulnerability. Both
aspects are illustrated in (Belgacem et al., 2019), where historical institutional change from traditional
pastoralism to modernised agriculture in Tunisia led to extreme land degradation. The intervention
focused on addressing land degradation through periodic rangeland exclosures and implementation
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of traditional pastoralist techniques and management. Restoration of traditional institutions in
combination with periodic exclosures, rather than exclosures alone, promoted intervention longevity,
reducing the risk of regressing back towards unsustainably intensive land use and land deterioration.
In a similar way, several studies highlighted the influence of intrinsic institutions on social pathways.
Strauch et al. (2016) showed how historical institutional change from customary institutions to formal
government institutions conflicted with social and cultural practices, thereby disempowering the
community. The intervention, aiming to restore traditionally managed forests in Tanzania, focused on
remediating ecological damage, while addressing issues of ownership and empowerment. Through
joint ownership, co-management and land tenure rights, the intervention institutional mechanisms
strengthened social, human, and economic capital. These effects directly shaped social pathways as
institutional empowerment enhanced social adaptive capacity and reduced social sensitivity.
5. DISCUSSION
This study reveals the diversity of social-ecological contexts in which NbS play a role and the various
social and ecological pathways through which NbS affect people's vulnerability in the rural Global
South. Cases gathered through the systematic mapping method reported overwhelmingly positive
effects on reducing people’s vulnerability. Few studies reported negative, mixed, or unclear effects on
people’s social-ecological vulnerability. Some studies reported varied outcomes for different social
groups (such as wealthier, land-owning groups at the expense of poorer, landless groups)
demonstrating how social and political processes influence who gains from efforts to reduce
vulnerability by implementing NbS (Seddon, 2022). Care should be taken when interpreting
aggregated effectiveness results given gaps in the dataset (e.g., geographical cover), and limitations
to weighing effectiveness outcomes by study quality (see Methods).
Our analytical framework clarifies how NbS shape people’s vulnerability to climate impacts in social-
ecological systems. We found that NbS were most reported to reduce vulnerability by reducing
ecological sensitivity, such as where exclosures and limited harvesting restored degraded land, making
the soil less sensitive to climatic stressors. Reduced social sensitivity, increased social adaptive
capacity, and reduced ecological exposure, were all well represented in the dataset, in a half to a third
of all intervention-cases respectively, identifying these as significant pathways of vulnerability
reduction. This shows how previous conceptualizations of social-ecological vulnerability focused on
ecological pathways may have missed important aspects of how NbS shape social vulnerability (Cinner
et al., 2012; Thiault et al., 2018).
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The least represented pathways were increasing ecological adaptive capacity and reducing social
exposure. While there is a growing evidence base on the role of ecosystems in reducing people’s
exposure to climate impacts (Seddon et al., 2020b), few cases were coded for this pathway. This is
likely due to our approach. First, we operationalised social pathways as independent of ecological
pathways – i.e., specifically where an action intervenes on the social attributes of a social-ecological
system. Therefore, in cases where people’s overall exposure was affected, our dataset reveals that
NbS intervene often principally reducing vulnerability to ecological assets that people value (such as,
productive ecosystems), in line with previous findings on social-ecological vulnerability (Cinner et al.,
2012; Thiault et al., 2018). Finally, to avoid double counting, studies identifying indirect reductions to
vulnerability of social attributes through direct reductions on ecological vulnerability were not coded
for the former. We also found that intervention’s influence on ecological adaptive capacity is under
reported in the literature on nature-based interventions. Specifically ecological adaptive capacity
pertains to the diversity, heterogeneity, and connectedness of the ecosystem and the characteristics
and conditions of its component species and habitats (Seddon et al., 2020a). Thus, lack of reporting
may be in part because ecological monitoring incurs high financial and labor transaction costs.
Our analysis also highlights factors mediating the extent to which NbS reduce people’s vulnerability
to climate change. Social and political factors were identified as frequently as technical aspects of
project design. Moreover, results highlight the critical role of institutions in shaping how interventions
are designed and implemented, and therefore, the pathways by which vulnerability is reduced in NbS.
This corroborates research demonstrating the influence of social-ecological system attributes and
dynamics on intervention outcomes (Haider et al. 2021). It also complements research exploring how
NbS are shaped by people’s agency and adaptation strategies (e.g., Palomo et al., 2021; Turner et al.,
2022), by recognising their social characteristics, which can both constrain and enable ‘nature-based’
adaptation action. Our findings provide clear evidence that access and tenure considerations are
paramount in understanding how particular groups of people benefit from nature for adaptation, and
that understanding the process of NbS design and implementation is crucial (Woroniecki, 2019; Mouk
et al., 2021).
Limitations and opportunities for future research
By combining descriptive statistics and qualitative analysis of specific intervention-cases, we can draw
general patterns from the dataset, and show how NbS outcomes depend on place-based factors in a
social-ecological system. Although we do not show the extent to which vulnerability is reduced, we
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show the range of ways in which interventions can shape vulnerability in specific contexts. Specifically,
we offer a deeper understanding of pathways to vulnerability reduction, helping to generate
hypotheses. Further case study research and evidence synthesis could focus more specifically on these
pathways, especially factors mediating their synergies, interactions, and trade-offs, and how NbS are
shaped in specific regions, contribute to transformative change across landscapes, and affect different
groups (Nesshöver et al., 2017). They could also be extended to the urban context and in marginalised
communities in the Global North (Brink et al., 2016).
Whilst we find convincing evidence that NbS can reduce people’s vulnerability to climate change, few
interventions represent the same configuration of variables, limiting generalizability across contexts
and quantitative meta-analysis. Some lower income regions are poorly represented, notably on the
African continent, apart from a few East African countries. These patterns can partly be accounted for
by language barriers, given we excluded non-English studies (see Chausson, Turner et al., 2020 for
further details). They are also indications of international inequalities in the distribution of funding
and capacity for scientific research (ibid). Exclusion of grey literature may result in a disproportionate
limit of evidence from particular regions.
We recognise our analysis is limited by the perspectives and research designs of the studies included
in the original evidence map (Chausson, Turner et al., 2020). The scope of included studies may hide
other vulnerability pathways given the initial dataset’s restriction to studies explicitly linking nature-
based interventions with climate impact outcomes. Importantly, studies focusing exclusively on
intervention implementation, management, or governance were excluded where they did not report
direct effects on climate impacts. Social vulnerability pathways may therefore be underrepresented.
Also, we are bound to follow causal inferences linking the intervention to vulnerability outcomes as
reported in the studies. Other drivers beyond nature-based interventions may have been instrumental
in delivering vulnerability reduction benefits and NbS may have affected vulnerability pathways that
were not reported on. Finally, studies may not have assessed effects on all social groups in the
intervention’s sphere of influence. As the scholarship on equity in relation to EbA shows, it is crucial
to focus on how benefits are socially disaggregated across different groups and how vulnerability may
be redistributed between groups (Atteridge and Remling, 2018; Eriksen et al., 2021).
Contributions to research and practice
Using NbS as an analytical concept, we highlight ways in which people’s vulnerability to climate change
is mediated by social-ecological systems, and how NbS build on such systems to produce adaptation
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benefits (Maru et al., 2014; Colloff et al., 2020). Our results clearly show how NbS are not synonymous
with ‘ecosystem services’, but rather co-productions involving people and nature working towards
specific societal challenges (Lavorel et al., 2019; Bruley et al., 2021; Welden et al., 2021; Turner et al.,
2022).
NbS have largely been recognised for their potential to deliver social and ecological ‘co-benefits’ that
engineered approaches may not be able to provide, such as social cohesion or biodiversity
conservation. Based on our analysis, such co-benefits (e.g., Woroniecki et al., 2019) play a crucial role
in reducing social-ecological vulnerability. To understand this more holistic contribution to people’s
vulnerability contexts means shifting attention from climate impacts per se, and more into
components of vulnerability such as sensitivity and adaptive capacity (O’Brien et al., 2007; Singh et al.,
2021). This highlights the need to consider vulnerability in more integrated ways, especially in the
Global South, keeping in mind issues of access, equity, and the complexity of social-ecological systems
(Olsson et al., 2014; Pinho et al., 2014a;b; Hoque et al., 2018). For example, Bhowmik et al. (2021)
show how different shocks and stresses function in coastal small-scale marine fisheries SES of
Bangladesh, demonstrating the multiple dimensions of vulnerability.
The study underlines the multi-dimensional character vulnerability and adaptation choices, including
its social and ecological dimensions, in the context of climate change (IPCC AR6WGIISRM, 2022).
Therefore, a narrow practical focus on technical mediating factors is likely to miss the key role of social
factors in influencing intervention outcomes (Osaka et al., 2021). Similarly, narrowly focusing in
project evaluations on an NbS’s ecological benefits may sideline valuable social dimensions of
nominally ecosystem-based adaptation actions (Diaz et al., 2018).
Our work contributes to research on adaptation pathways (c.f. Wise et al., 2014; Colloff et al., 2020)
that draw attention to the ways that societies respond to environmental change over time (Colloff et
al., 2020). Although lacking a temporally explicit focus, we complement this understanding by
highlighting the embeddedness of NbS in social-ecological systems, focusing on how NbS for
adaptation are based upon, and in turn influence a given social-ecological context. The pathways to
sustainability approach (Ely et al., 2022) offers further insights into the political character of
adaptation processes including the differential costs and benefits of adaptation for different groups
(Ensor et al., 2019). Whilst our analysis does not comprehensively shed light on how NbS address social
and political root causes of vulnerability, we highlight how vulnerability is best understood as the
property of a system. An integrated approach that goes beyond narrow indicators or climate impacts
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can be furthered through genuine participatory approaches with local stakeholders and rightsholders,
moving beyond technical assessments of climate risk and hazards. For example, Mehta et al. (2021),
have explored these issues with marginalised groups in India, exploring the key role of agency and the
co-production of social-ecological knowledge in integrated adaptation and development responses.
6 CONCLUSION
NbS are called upon to address global societal challenges, such as biodiversity and climate crises. Yet
a systematic appraisal of how NbS can address societal challenges has so far been lacking. Here we
analysed how nature-based interventions shape climate change vulnerability across lower income
nations, where nature-dependent livelihoods make people particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis
(Fedele et al. 2021). We paid attention to people’s vulnerability contexts, how these are shaped by
social, institutional, and political factors, and in turn how these shape, and are shaped by NbS.
The analysis revealed the need to pay close attention to intervention and vulnerability contexts,
including local needs and adaptation priorities, as well as the climate-driven effects on the ecosystems
on which people depend. Attention to these various elements is crucial to ensure that NbS can be
effective, equitable and sustainable. We found effectiveness is strongly mediated by social and
political mediating factors, in addition to technical factors which speaks to the need for
interdisciplinary approaches to understanding NbS and links to development processes (Schipper et
al., 2016). Lastly, we hope that this study provides a useful starting point for contributions from
researchers from the Global South, who are and should be at the forefront of understanding people’s
diverse responses to environmental change.
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