‘Nature-based Solutions’ with Chinese characteristics

China’s approach to “nature-based solutions” (NbS) is beginning to go global. But what is it and what opportunities might it afford developing countries?

NbS is a globally used concept, but a May 2024 scientific paper argues that it may have specific meanings in China. **

In a nutshell, Chinese NbS focus on large-scale, “eco-developmental” projects that blur the boundaries between the natural and the engineered. This means that NbS in China are not particularly concerned with preserving nature for its own sake. Rather, NbS are seen as a way to enhance and refine ecologically balanced, sustainable development.

This at times contrasts with NbS as used in the western lexicon – especially when promoted in the Global South – which can focus more on the nature side of things. National parks or nature preserves in Africa managed by western organisations, for example, can be considered NbS. Although western donors may claim otherwise, these NbS don’t really have a development focus.

NbS with Chinese characteristics approach nature as a broader concept, potentially involving the built environment too. For example, a quintessential Chinese NbS is large-scale tree planting to address all sorts of environmental problems related to pollution, flooding, sandstorms, and climate change. Often this planting is integrated within larger infrastructure projects. Such planting can be critiqued from a more preservationist perspective, because it does not protect or recreate natural ecosystems and may even undermine them. For most Chinese people, however, humans are considered a large part of nature.


China wants to become a global environmental leader – plain and simple. This is coming mostly from the leadership of the Communist Party. The push was initially domestic, with the “ecological civilisation” campaign beginning (perhaps a bit half-heartedly) around 2007. Today, the policy agenda of ecological civilisation is stronger than ever and has a huge impact on domestic development.

In 2018, President Xi Jinping outlined six principles on the construction of ecological civilisation. The final principle is all about ecological civilisation “going global”. According to Xi, China must build a global ecological civilisation and be “deeply involved in global environmental governance”.

This is where NbS comes in. NbS and ecological civilisation have strong resonance. They both aspire to a societal shift in which societies leverage and come into harmony with natural rhythms to realise shared prosperity. Yet, while some may argue ecological civilisation is a Chinese paradigm with limited global traction, NbS is a highly international term with worldwide appeal.

So, the idea within Chinese leadership is to use NbS to make China’s ecological civilisation “go global”. China has been doing NbS for decades, if not centuries, only not under that name. By adopting this highly international term, China can showcase to the world its ecological expertise.

Source: Extract from Dialogue Earth, June 28, 2024. https://dialogue.earth/…/qa-nature-based-solutions…/

** See link to the published paper: https://www.sciencedirect.com/…/pii/S0959378024000463…