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Challenges to nature-based solutions

The implementation of nature-based solutions is complex. You will learn about the barriers that nature-based solution implementation may experience.
Person trying to roll a boulder up a hill
© Elias Sch. via Pixabay CC0

In previous steps, we have learnt about the opportunities nature-based solutions present in solving climate adaptation challenges. However, the implementation of nature-based solutions is complex and involves many negotiations. In this step you will learn about the barriers that nature-based solution implementation may experience.

Barriers for nature-based adaptation solutions

Several of the governance challenges and barriers for effective planning and implementation of nature-based solutions are similar to those experienced in the wider field of Climate Adaptation Governance. They relate to gaps between levels, sectors and stakeholders. In addition, temporal scale issues and trade-offs between grey (engineering) and green (nature-based) solutions also influence effective implementation of ecosystem-based approaches.

The main barriers for nature-based solutions in climate adaptation are:

1. Disconnect between scales and boundaries


Ecosystems function at different and often connected scales from local (for example, the catchment of a small stream) to very large (for example, a transnational river basin). Often ecosystem boundaries (for example, a river flowing through 3 countries) do not correspond with political and administrative boundaries (for example, village, district, province, region, national borders). If adaptation does not take into account the different spatial scales, human and ecosystem vulnerability could increase – even resulting in maladaptation.

Maladaptation is an action that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare now and in the future

(IPCC 5th Assessment Report 2014. Annex II Glossary).

An example of maladaptation is when in one village, a dam is built, while in neighbouring villages this project may result in a drought. The adaptation plans of the first village are being developed without collectively considering the capacity of the river source (aquifer) to provide water for other villages.

2. Lack of harmonization and coordination among relevant sectors

Hands on top of each other

Ecosystems function across a range of different sectors such as water, agriculture, energy, transport, health and conservation. Nature-based solutions must consequently avoid applying an isolated approach and should therefore not solely be a concern for environmental scientists and eco-practitioners. Effective ecosystem-based approaches require cooperation across many sectors, institutions and communities.

A lack of harmonization and coordination among sectoral policies can create a complex operating environment and generate barriers for the implementation of nature-based solutions. The lack of coordination between sectors coupled with weak environmental regulations, and ineffective application of these regulations are a major barrier.

3. Different timeframes needed

Green roof

Nature-based solutions often require more time to be effective (for example, it takes 10-15 years for a mangrove tree to reach maturity). This is a long time if compared to engineered solutions. The long-time requirement may discourage decisions in favour of nature-based solutions.

4. Trade-offs vis-à-vis engineered solutions

Clocks with different time zones

When nature-based solutions are being considered, they frequently lose out to engineered solutions. Existing permitting processes and short-term gains often favour traditional engineering interventions, for example constructing dams instead of increasing wetlands, “living” shorelines or reforestation schemes. In addition, nature-based solution approaches may bring less visibility, tangibility and less certainty than steel and cement structures.

5. Limited uptake and available funding

blurred speed lines

The rate at which nature-based solutions are being taken up remains slow and most schemes are modest in scale. National governments have begun to adopt these approaches, but rarely in large scale or as a first option. It is mainly civil society organisations that have driven progress to date. Private sector investment in nature-based solutions has until now been limited. Reasons for relatively limited uptake and interest, according to the Global Commission on Adaptation, are linked to a few factors.

  1. There might be a lack of awareness and understanding of the critical importance of nature-based solutions.
  2. There could also be limited knowledge and evidence to help make a convincing case for the use of nature-based solutions.
  3. There could be a challenging policy and regulatory environment.
  4. Finally, there might be technical challenges and capacity gaps to successfully design and implement nature-based solution programs.

Discussion point

To start, go to this online platform for nature-based solutions (from the University of Oxford). Use the world map icon to access the overview. On the left side of the screen you can use filters to select a particular region and country. Explore the projects presented for your country, or a neighbouring country. Choose one project. What is the main focus? How much did it cost? Who is funding it? How long will it take? Attempt to discover more facts about nature-based solutions in your region. Please share your discoveries with other learners in the discussion section.


IPCC, Fifth Assessment Report (2014), WG II; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

IPCC 5th Assessment Report (2014) Annex II: Glossary.

Global Commission on Adaptation, Background paper on the Role of Natural Environment in Adaptation.

Global Commission on Adaptation, Accelerating Adaptation: A Global Call to Action, Flagship Report.

Helen Jeans, Judy Oglethorpe, Joanna Phillips and Hannah Reid, The role of ecosystems in climate change adaptation, in: Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change, Scaling it up, Routledge/Earthscan, 2014, London/New York, pp. 253-255.

UNEP, EbA Briefing Note 4, Selecting complementary adaptation measures.

Conservation International (2017), Green-gray storm shelters.

© University of Groningen
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