9. Ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation and impacts of adaptation activities on biodiversity

Authors: Robert Munroe (BirdLife) and Nicky Jenner (FFI)

UNFCCC definition of adaptation is the ‘adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities’1. Various types of adaptation can be distinguished, including anticipatory and reactive adaptation, and autonomous and planned adaptation2. Planned human adaptation to climate change may be achieved in many different ways. One approach has been termed Ecosystem-based approaches for Adaptation (EbA). This approach includes sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems as part of an overall adaptation strategy that takes into account the multiple social, economic and cultural co-benefits for local communities.

Ecosystems are an important consideration in the adaptation process. On the one hand, sustainable management of ecosystems can itself contribute to adaptation and is particularly applicable in supporting adaptation among vulnerable communities3 that are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. This can be achieved through:

  • Increasing resilience to climate change to help support continued ecosystem service provision (see Chapter 8), including the maintenance of supporting services (e.g. nutrient cycles), through to provisioning services.
  • Strategic use of ecosystem goods and services that provide direct adaptation benefits to local communities, such as wetlands’ flood regulation and mangrove’s storm surge mitigation services.

On the other hand, societal adaptation measures4 can negatively impact ecosystems and undermine the services they provide. For example, flood barriers constraining natural periodic cycles such as annual river flooding, and the impact of hard infrastructural alternatives, such as sea-walls rather than maintaining coastal mangroves, may have significant impacts on biodiversity. However, there may be situations where these solutions may be ignored due to short-term needs or immediate crisis or because of the tipping point (see Chapter 7) at which an ecosystem stops providing the services neccessary for adaptation has been, or is soon to be reached.

Examples of ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation activities include:

  • Coastal defence through the maintenance and/or restoration of mangroves and other coastal wetlands to reduce coastal flooding and coastal erosion. These ecosystems have high productivity enabling them to add considerable volume to trapped sediments around their roots, causing soils to grow upwards reducing the rate of SLR compared to unvegetated sites and certainly reducing wave height.
  • Adapting the design and management of marine protected areas to protect coral reefs and shellfish reefs and their ability to act as natural breakwaters and dissipate wave energy and sustain fish habitat.
  • Sustainable management of upland wetlands and floodplains for maintenance of water flow and quality.
  • Making space for nature – removal of hard man-made river banks and blueways through urban areas, greenways through urban areas, sustainable urban drainage systems.
  • Conservation and restoration of forests to stabilize land slopes and regulate water flows, preventing flash flooding and landslides as rainfall levels and intensity increase.
  • Establishment of diverse agroforestry systems providing flexible livelihood options to cope with increased risk from changed climatic conditions and have potential to support greater biodiversity.
  • Conservation of agro-biodiversity to provide specific gene pools for crop (e.g. drought resistant whilst less reliant on chemical inputs) and livestock (e.g. water efficient) adaptation to climate change, and to maintain soil moisture and nutrients.

If designed, implemented and monitored appropriately, with full involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities that follows the highly complementary community-based adaptation (CbA) approach (see box 1), ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation can be a useful and widely applicable approach to adaptation because they:

  • Can be applied at regional, national and local levels, at both project and programmatic levels, and benefits can be realized over short and long time scales.
  • May be more cost-effective and more accessible and enduring than measures based on hard infrastructure and engineering (although in some cases these will certainly be necessary) to rural or poor communities because they provide local benefits and can be locally managed and maintained.
  • Can integrate and maintain traditional and local knowledge and cultural values.
  • Generate multiple social, economic and cultural co-benefits for local communities, including contributing to climate change mitigation by conserving carbon stocks, reducing emissions caused by ecosystem degradation and loss and enhancing carbon stocks.
  • Contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • Through participatory approaches, it presents a tangible opportunity to align conservation; development; poverty alleviation; disaster risk reduction; humanitarian aid; water, agricultural, forestry, tourism, health sector, interests and build integrated approaches to adaptation (that avoid mal-adaptation5).
Box 1: 
Community-based adaptation. Community-based adaptation is one of the fastest-developing approaches to adaptation. Complementing a top-down approach, e.g. UNFCCC helping a nation develop a National Adaptation Plan of Action, which they then pass down to lower levels of government for implementation, it draws on participatory approaches and methods developed in both disaster risk reduction and community development work. It is based on the premise of understanding how climate change will affect the local environment and a community’s assets and capacities, including knowledge and practices of coping with past and present climate-related hazards, and prioritising adaptation practices accordingly. Ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation and community-based adaptation (CbA) are often closely linked and should be mutually reinforcing. Many examples of ecosystem-based approaches are locally managed and appropriate, and are informed by local and traditional knowledge. CbA is often intimately connected with the health of and services provided by ecosystems. Together they help underpin good adaptation policy, planning and delivery, and are especially significant to communities and peoples directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. 

Ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation may require managing ecosystems to provide particular services at the expense of others. For example, using wetlands for coastal protection may require emphasis on silt accumulation and stabilization possibly at the expense of wildlife values and recreation. It is therefore important that decisions to implement ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation are subject to full and effective participation, risk assessment, scenario planning, and adaptive management approaches that recognise and incorporate potential trade-offs over time and space but also between different ecosystem goods and services.

In most cases there is the potential to increase positive and reduce negative impacts of adaptation on biodiversity. To help achieve this, the practical implementation of adaptation and adaptation policy options should consider:

  • Use of environmental mainstreaming tools such as strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) and environmental impact assessments (EIAs – for individual sites) in planning and policy, and in project and programme delivery, and ensure that these tools incorporate adaptation considerations and an ecosystem approach6.
  • Ensure full and effective participation by following the CbA tools in the Key Tools section below.
  • Collect, conserve and disseminate traditional and local knowledge, innovations and practices related to coping mechanisms and adaptation where appropriate and with free, prior and informed consent from traditional knowledge holders to help ensure effective and locally appropriate adaptation.
  • Establishing monitoring processes to detect any positive or negative impacts of adaptation on biodiversity and people, and point samples on climate data to inform a ‘learning by doing’ approach. Consider participatory monitoring approaches that are designed and managed by those most likely to be involved in and/or affected by adaptation strategies.
  • Maintain intact and interconnected ecosystems to increase resilience and allow biodiversity and people to adjust to changing environmental conditions.
  • Integrate the role of ecosystems in human adaptation into national adaptation plans, and then link or integrate these with other strategic plans and processes such as those related to: development, poverty reduction, land-use, biodiversity, business sectors (agriculture, water, transport, energy, tourism).
  • These considerations should be integrated into national and international adaptation finance safeguards.

The Cancun Adaptation Framework, the decision on adaptation to come out of UNFCCC COP16, Cancun, Dec 2010, that guides international and national action, makes clear that:

  • As part of the principles guiding adaptation, adaptation action should consider vulnerable ecosystems and be integrated into relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions
  • Parties are invited to undertake adaptation in the areas of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems and coastal zones
  • To undertake environmental evaluations of adaptation options
  • To build resilience of ecological systems, include through sustainable management of natural resources
  • Adaptation actions, plans and programmes are to be implemented in and across different economic and social sectors and ecosystems.


Key Questions:

  1. What is the effect of biodiversity loss on developing country communities’ ability to adapt?
  2. What are the potential trade-offs of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation?
  3. Are ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation more cost-effective than ‘hard’ infrastructure – how to measure the costs and benefits in order to ensure accounting of ecosystems in assessments of economics of adaptation?
  4. How to ensure that the role of ecosystems in human adaptation is considered in all adaptation activities?
  5. How to overcome association of ecosystem-based approaches being conservation ‘business-as-usual’?
  6. How can we strengthen integration of EbA and CbA principles / methods to increase effectiveness of adaptation responses for biodiversity and people?
  7. When exploring options for climate change adaptation, how can we ensure and encourage the active participation of all stakeholders?
  8. What processes do we need to go through to identify the appropriate scale of intervention / response?
  9. How can we ensure that ecosystem based approaches to adaptation take into consideration the social, economic and cultural values needs and rights of people in the landscape?
  10. How do you identify the distributionof potential bnefits and costs associated with a particular ecosystem-based approach to adaptation and then insure


Key case studies / ongoing projects:

links (both successes and failures) and summary of a selection (use and add to existing spreadsheet of resources).
  • Andrade Pérez, A., Herrera Fernandez, B. and Cazzolla Gatti, R. (eds.) (2010). Building Resilience to Climate Change: Ecosystem-based adaptation and lessons from the field. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 164pp.  http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2010-050.pdf Comprises 11 case studies including:
    • Ecosystem-based Adaptation: Lessons from the Chingaza Massif in the High Mountain ecosystem of Colombia.
    • Climate change adaptation strategies in the Chiawa community of the Lower Zambezi Game Management Area, Zambia.
    • Ecosystem-based adaptation in the Seaflower Marine Protected Area, San Andres Archipelago, Colombia: A community based approach.
    • Climate change and ecosystems: Impacts and ecosystem-based adaptation in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean.
  • Galloway McLean, Kirsty (2010) Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies, United Nations University – Traditional Knowledge Initiative, Darwin, Australia. – great source of adaptation using traditional knowledge case studies.
  • Conservation International
  • Nkem, J., Idinoba, M. & Sendashonga, C. (2008) Forests for climate change adaptation in the Congo Basin: Responding to an urgent need with sustainable practices. CIFOR environment briefs. No. 2 (November): http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/trofcca/
  • Petersen, Caroline and Stephen Holness. World Resources Report Case Study. South Africa: Ecosystem-Based Planning for Climate ChangeWorld Resources Report, Washington DC. Available online at http://www.worldresourcesreport.org
  • Tropical Forests and Climate Change Adaptation (TroFCCA) is a four year project of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Tropical Agriculture Center for Research and Higher Education (CATIE) to contribute to the understanding of adaptation to climate change within tropical forest ecosystems. TroFCCA works in three regions and seven countries: http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/trofcca/_ref/home/index.htm
  • Wetlands International
  • World Fish Centre (2009) Mangrove revival diversifies livelihoods while addressing climate change. Project Brief 1945. www.worldfishcentre.org


Key tools and forums:

CARE Climate Context Monitoring Tool – basic set of questions to guide a process of monitoring changes to the context over the life of an adaptation project

CARE  Community-based Adaptation Toolkit, Version 1.0, July 2010 – practical ‘how-to’ guide for project teams in completing the project cycle for CbA projects – useful insight on participatory approaches and human vulnerability assessments

CARE Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (CVCA) Handbook, May 2009 – useful insight on participatory approaches and human vulnerability assessments: http://www.careclimatechange.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25&Itemid=30

CBD Climate Change Adaptation Database – Identifying and Evaluating Adaptation Options http://adaptation.cbd.int/options.shtml#sec1 – table of biome type, adaptation activity, likely impact on biodiversity, potential risk to biodiversity, possible action for adaptive management and database providing links to scientific studies and other resources on biodiversity related climate change adaptation

CIFOR: Forests, Climate Change and REDD+  www.forestsclimatechange.org/

Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE) – developed by Island Press and EcoAdapt, is aimed at building a shared knowledge base for managing natural systems in the face of climate change and creating an innovative community of practice. The website: http://www.cakex.org/includes case studies, a virtual library, directory of practitioners, and a information on tools available on other sites.

Community-based Risk Screening Tool – Adaptation and Livelihoods (CRiSTAL) http://www.iisd.org/cristaltool/ – is designed to help project planners and managers integrate climate change adaptation and risk reduction into community-level projects. The CRiSTAL tool runs in Microsoft Excel and can be downloaded from: http://www.iisd.org/cristaltool/download.aspx  The User’s Manual is now available in English, French and Spanish.

Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network  (ELAN)– a global network of scientists, policy makers and practitioners (ELAN nodes) dedicated to supporting the integration of sound ecosystem management in adaptation policies, plans and programmes by conducting capacity building exercises. ELAN have developed the website: http://www.adaptationportal.org – a global online community created for climate change adaptation practitioners and those interested in learning more about adaptation

Environment Agency – Climate change adaptation for wildlife and habitats: Includes short overviews of climate change adaptation work being undertaken by the Environment Agency and partner organisations: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/planning/108363.aspx

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Climate Foresight Planning tool: provides a process and framework to support FFI teams and partner organisations in exploring potential vulnerabilities to, and impacts of, projected climate change and identify appropriate responses to support effective adaptation and reduce impacts for habitats, species, services and people.

Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) http://unfccc.int/nwp – a programme under UNFCCC that seeks to facilitate knowledge exchange between multiple stakeholders to assist all countries to improve their understanding and assessment of impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. Several proponent organisations of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation (e.g. BirdLife, CI, Wetlands International) are partners of the programme and their products and publications are available on the NWP website. It is also a good source of broader adaptation information.

Natureandpoverty.net – a knowledge and learning network for practitioners working on nature conservation, sustainable use of natural resources, poverty eradication, social and environmental justice and organisational capacity building. This website is an online platform that helps practitioners connect with individuals and organisations, share experiences, and find tools and resources.

Reef Resilience Toolkit: Modules include Coral Reefs and Fish Spawning Aggregations, and are deisgned to provide coral reef managers with guidance on building resilience to climate change into the design of MPAs and daily management activities. The toolkit seeks to address the question asked by managers when considering what they can do at the local scale to reduce the impacts of global climate change. The toolkit is available from the Reef Resilience website: http://reefresilience.org/ which also offers webinars, case studies, resilience training, publications and resources.

Tearfund (2009) Climate Change and Environmental Degradation Risk and Adaptation Assessment (CEDRA) – helps agencies working in developing countries to access and understand the science of climate change and environmental degradation and to compare this with local community experience of environmental change: http://tilz.tearfund.org/webdocs/Tilz/Topics/Environmental%20Sustainability/CEDRA%20D5.pdf

The Nature Conservancy: TNC’s Knowledge Base for Climate Change Adaptation’ – a Community of Practice dedicated to developing climate change adaptation strategies that work in real places, and to advocate for ecosystem-based adaptation and resilience strategies that can help sustain communities in this time of global change.  http://conserveonline.org/workspaces/climateadaptation

The Nature Conservancy Climate Change and Conservation: A Primer for Assessing Impacts and Advancing Ecosystembased Adaptation in The Nature Conservancy: http://conserveonline.org/workspaces/climateadaptation/documents/a-primer-for-assessing-impacts  This tool is aimed at TNC field operating units, regional programs, and appropriate Worldwide Office programs and is intended to provide an introduction to climate change, identify a set of frequently-asked questions that practitioners need to be able to answer to effectively address the challenge of climate change, define commonly used terminology in the climate change community, outline proposed guidance to incorporate climate change considerations in conservation planning methods, offer information about tools, resources and learning networks, provide an understanding of how and when to conduct impact and vulnerability analyses, and provide an overview of the wide array of ecosystem-based adaptation strategies that can potentially address climate change impacts.

The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Gateway is aimed at conservation practitioners, scientists and decision-makers and is organised in two sections: Plan and Adapt and Conservation in Actionhttp://www.conservationgateway.org/topic/ecosystem-based-adaptation   The Gateway contains how-to information, case studies, example documents, publications and reports, links to relevent web-based tools, announcements about the latest news, trainings, product releases, funding opportunities, etc, blog posts and newsletters.

weADAPT http://www.weadapt.org/ – according to the site, weADAPT “is literally an expression of it’s content, including it’s network of users and knowledge partners and information on various projects and initiatives. This content is enriched by semantic search technology”.In addition to case studies and knowledge base articles, the site features

The Adaptation Layer, a collaboration between weADAPT and Google.org that seeks to explore ways of improving access to information on climate adaptation using Google Earth. Based on input from users this tool enables users to share the work they are doing with a wide auience and find out who is working on what and where. The weADAPT collaboration is also exploring the potential of using Google Earth for displaying and communicating climate risk and climate adaptation information relevant to decision makers, researchers, project officers and those in the NGO community. 
Anyone can browse and search the data geographically or by keywords using a web browser, and registered users can download tailor-made sets of relevant data (e.g. on water, health or ecosystem services) and open this using Google Earth on a desktop computer.

World Resources Report – http://www.worldresourcesreport.org/ – practical guidance and information about integrating climate risks to policy makers and officials, including expert perspectives and case studies

Key references and resources:

(use and add to existing spreadsheet of resources).

Andrade Pérez, A., Herrera Fernandez, B. and Cazzolla Gatti, R. (eds.) (2010). Building Resilience to Climate Change: Ecosystem-based adaptation and lessons from the field. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 164pp.  http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2010-050.pdf

BirdLife International (2009) Partners with Nature: How healthy ecosystems are helping the world’s most vulnerable adapt to climate change

Brooks, N (2003) Vulnerability, risk and adaptation: A conceptual framework, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Campbell, A., Kapos, V., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Bubb, P., Chenery, A., Coad, L., Dickson, B., Doswald, N., Khan, M. S. I., Kershaw, F. and Rashid, M. (2009). ReviewoftheLiteratureontheLinksbetweenBiodiversityandClimateChange:Impacts,AdaptationandMitigation. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montréal. Technical Series No. 42, 124 pages.

Colls, A., Ash, N. and Ikkala, N. (2009). Ecosystem-based Adaptation: a natural response to climate change. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 16pp.

Dudley, N. et al. (2010) Natural Solutions: Protected areas helping people cope with climate change, IUCN-WCPA, TNC, UNDP, WCS, World Bank, WWF

Ensor, J. & Berger, R. (2009) Governance for community based adaptation. Discussion Paper. Practical Action (www.practicalaction.org)

Hale et al. 2009 Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Marine and Coastal Ecosystems

Locatelli, B., Kanninen, M., Brockhaus, M., Colfer, C.J.P., Murdiyarso, D. and Santoso, H. 2008 Facing an uncertain future: How forests and people can adapt to climate change. Forest Perspectives no. 5. CIFOR, Bogor, Indonesia.

Nken, J., Santoso, H., Murdiyarso, D., Brockhaus, M. & Kanninen, M. (2007) Using Tropical Forest Ecosystem Goods and Services for Planning Climate Change Adaptation with Implications for Food Security and Poverty Reduction, 4 (1), SAT eJournalwww.ejournal.icrisat.org

Petersen, Caroline and Stephen Holness. World Resources Report Case Study. South Africa: Ecosystem-Based Planning for Climate Change. World Resources Report, Washington DC. Available online at http://www.worldresourcesreport.org

Reid, H. et al. (2009) Natural resilience: healthy ecosystems as climate shock insurance, IIED Briefing

IIED Climate Change Group (2009) Community-based adaptation to climate change. Participatory Learning and Action 60 – Special Issue. Russell Press: Nottingham, UK

Rodriguez et al. 2006 ‘Trade-offs across space, time, and ecosystem services’. Ecology and Society 11(1): 28

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2009).Connecting Biodiversity and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: Report of the Second Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Biodiversity and Climate Change. Montreal, Technical Series No. 41, 126 pages. page 34; 37-45, 61-63

UNDP (2008) ‘A guide to the vulnerability reduction assessment’ UNDP Community Based Adaptation Programme Working Paper.

UNFCCC (2009) ‘Approaches to and experiences in integrating and expanding adaptation planning and action at national, subnational, community and local levels, and lessons learned, good practices, gaps, needs, and barriers and constraints to adaptation’ SBSTA 13th Session, Bonn 1-10 June 2009.http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/sbsta/eng/misc04.pdf

UNEP: http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/publications/series/unep-rsp-info-series.pdf

World Bank (2009) Convenient Solutions to an Inconvenient Truth: Ecosystem-based approaches to climate change

1UNFCCC Glossary

2Climate change 2001: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability: contribution of Working Group II to the third assessment report of the IPCC. Annex B. Glossary of Terms (http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg2/689.htm

3Vulnerability = exposure to climate change impacts + sensitivity to those impacts (e.g. dependence on environment, high inequalities) + adaptive capacity (e.g. ability to adapt)

4Societal adaptation can involve societal changes, such as proactive capacity building or migration; socio-economic changes such as insurances, sustainable development and resource management; and technical fixes, such as efficient cooling systems, desalinisation, and flood barriers.

5Adaptation that leads to perverse outcomes, for example, poor synergies between adaptation plans/projects that lead to increasing vulnerability of ‘downstream’ community, and destroying biodiversity and important ecosystem services.

6A strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. It involves taking account of vital ecosystem functions and valuing the ecological goods and services they provide in all decision-making processes. ‘The Ecosystem Approach’ is the primary framework for action under the CBD.

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