NUS at COP27: Putting nature to work in climate change solutions

Nature conservation is key in the global effort to tackle climate change, given the ability of many natural habitats to draw down the amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and reduce the impacts of climate change on communities. However, successfully harnessing nature as a climate solution would require partnerships across different sectors of society, with scientific research from universities such as NUS being instrumental in informing government policy and commercial decisions. 

These were the key messages from experts who took part in two panel discussions organised by the NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS), a research centre of NUS’ Faculty of Science, during the COP27 climate change conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Both sessions were held on Nature-based Solutions Day on 16 November at the inaugural Singapore Pavilion, which showcased Singapore’s efforts in dealing with the global climate crisis. 

Tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss

Speaking during CNCS’ first panel discussion on how nature-based climate solutions could help address the twin crises of nature loss and climate change, Mr Carlos Eduardo Correa, Colombia’s former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, cited how property located behind the mangroves of Colombia’s Caribbean coast were less damaged by a hurricane in 2020, compared with infrastructure in other areas.

“People were saying that they were alive thanks to the mangroves. That’s a nature-based solution for adaptation,” said Mr Correa, a Lui-Walton Senior Fellow at Conservation International. Such habitats are also good at capturing and storing carbon, he added. 

Natural habitats such as forests, mangroves, and peatlands help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas driving global warming - in the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. As a result, protecting these habitats from destruction, or restoring degraded areas, could be a source of carbon credits, with each credit representing one tonne of emissions avoided or removed from the atmosphere. Such credits can be bought by emitters in other countries to reduce their carbon footprint; this gives nature conservation the potential to be lucrative, especially with rising carbon prices. 

Yet, science must inform business decision-making, noted Mr Frederick Teo, Chief Executive Officer at GenZero, a global investment firm founded by Temasek.

Mr Teo, who was a panellist at CNCS’ second panel discussion on the science of carbon prospecting for climate change mitigation, pointed out how studies have shown that mangroves could store more carbon than tropical forests on a per hectare basis. This led him to think initially that the restoration or protection of mangrove habitats in Southeast Asia – an archipelagic region with long coastlines – could help enhance the rate of carbon sequestration from these habitats, and also be good for business. However, he came away with a more nuanced understanding after conferring with Professor Koh Lian Pin, Director of CNCS.

“Lian Pin told me, let’s think about it differently. No doubt that mangroves can sequester more carbon per year, but coastlines will not offer as large an area compared to tropical forests. Overall, there is a lot more that can be done for tropical forests on land, than mangroves in selected coastlines,” Mr Teo said.

“Businesses and investors need to be informed by science, so our perceptions on what is important can be better refined and improved,” he added.

Bolstering the scientific credibility of nature-based carbon projects

Prof Koh, who participated in both panels, singled out other pain points that could discourage investors from putting in money to conserve a plot of land, even if they were keen to do so. These include uncertainties about whether a carbon project is additional (meaning the forest would have been cut down if not for the establishment of the project), or about the approximate amount of carbon stored in a forest. A carbon project that is not additional cannot supply carbon credits, since the forest was not meant to be felled in the first place and there was no risk of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

Ongoing research at CNCS will help to plug these gaps, said Prof Koh. For example, CNCS launched a Carbon Prospecting Dashboard in September 2022 that compiled the findings of multiple peer-reviewed studies by the Centre’s researchers, highlighting where additional forest and mangrove carbon projects could potentially be established. A new S$15 million research programme launched by CNCS at COP27, called the Carbon Market Integrity Research and Development Programme Singapore, will also help to improve estimates on carbon yield across Southeast Asia’s varied natural habitats.

Collaboration is key to tangible climate progress

Prof Koh said that CNCS is a research institute that operates as a “boundary organisation”, working very closely at the interface between science and practice, and proactively engaging with various sectors to understand what the pain points and barriers are in implementing nature-based climate solutions. 

Ms Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, was the Guest-of-Honour during CNCS’ second panel discussion where Prof Koh explained how the Centre’s Carbon Prospecting Dashboard worked.

“I am pleased to see that CNCS is contributing to global research outcomes through this Carbon Prospecting Dashboard. I hope today’s showcase by CNCS will spark more interesting conversations and collaborations among scientists, policy-makers and private sector players, so we can all implement nature-based solutions with speed and scale all across the world,” she said.


For more NUS at COP27 content, read the following articles:

NUS at COP27: Why the annual UN climate summit matters

NUS at COP27: Launch of new S$15 million research programme to improve the credibility of nature-based carbon projects in Southeast Asia

NUS at COP27: Unlocking the potential of blue carbon projects