Effectiveness of ecosystem‐based approaches to adaptation: a critical review of current evidence

Planned adaptation to climate change may be achieved in many different ways. One approach is ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation. Such adaptation may include 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.

Building ecological resilience, prioritising vulnerable ecosystems for adaptation, and evaluating the environmental impact of adaptation measures, are all identified within the UNFCCC Cancun Adaptation Framework as activities that Parties should be undertaking when implementing successful adaptation. However, although there are numerous anecdotal case studies, there has been no robust scientific study on ecosystem-based adaptation effectiveness, and a limited number of reviews of the existing case studies. In particular there are very few quantitative – such as cost-benefit – studies and few with any kind of control situation or counterfactual.

This project would address this gap in knowledge through an extensive literature review of all strategies that have been used for adapting to climate variability/change. Building on a preliminary review undertaken by the Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network (ELAN), the project will systematically review the effectiveness of ecosystem-based adaptation using an assessment framework developed for this purpose.

Using this framework, the review will both systematically synthesise the current knowledge and identify key gaps in the evidence base, particularly focusing on what is missing to engage policy-makers. This will, in turn, inform the development of a programme of applied field research involving all project collaborators.

This project was funded by the CCI Collaborative Fund.

Project Aims

The aim of this project was to conduct a review of the existing body of evidence on the effectiveness of ecosystem-based approaches to climate change adaptation (EbA) with a view to informing governments preparing their national adaptation strategies and the IPCC 5th Assessment Report.

Conservation Impact

The overall conclusion of the review is that the majority of analysed studies concluded that ecosystem-based adaptation were effective, suggests that it deserve greater policy attention and political support to facilitate ‘learning by doing’.

In addition, the review helps to identify what is missing to engage policy-makers on ecosystem-based adaptation, indicating where concerted efforts should be made by practitioners to write-up their findings in a reflexive manner to enable the broader dissemination of evidence to inform conservation policy and practice. Moreover, the review informs what questions/data adaptation monitoring, measuring and evaluation frameworks should be seeking to answer/gather.

The results indicate that in the future, conservation researchers and practitioners need to fill the following knowledge gaps if policy-makers are to scale-up support:

  • More detailed comparisons between ecosystem-based adaptation and alternative adaptation strategies, taking into account, social, environmental and economic considerations;
  • Discussion of biophysical thresholds or ‘tipping points’ that control the degree to which an ecosystem (and the services it provides to the community) can continue to act in that capacity under an increase in physical stress (e.g. climate change) and boundary conditions (minimum size or the state of the ecosystem necessary to provide adaptation benefits), in varying climatic zones, in order to give decision-makers clearer indication of which type of ecosystem-based adaptation are applicable to their situation, to enable them to make informed, comparative decisions between adaptation options
  • More attention to costs as well as benefits: the literature tends to highlight positive outcomes with comparatively little attention paid to the potential costs of cosystem-based adaptation. This is not just in relation to economic costs (although this gap needs to be addressed more systematically and across a greater range of ecosystems) but also related to adverse actual and potential environmental and social effects
  • More information on whether ecosystem-based adaptation are being supported by local/national/international policies and on the success of such projects regarding instigating policy change
  • Greater consideration of the temporal and spatial aspects of the effectiveness of ecosystem-based adaptation
  • More strategic monitoring of existing ecosystem-based adaptation projects


A number of presentations were given at the Durban Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP17) in November/December 2011:

  1. “Adaptation Hub”  Question and Answer Session led by Robert Munroe on 30th November on Ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation.  This included discussion on the evidence base for Ecosystem-based adaptation effectiveness based on this project’s work.  The report from session used to inform agenda for UNFCCC NWP Ecosystem-based adaptation Workshop to be held 1st quarter of 2013
  2. Presentation:“Effectiveness of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation: critical review of evidence, initial results for mountain regions” by Robert Munroe at the Mountain Ecosystem-based adaptation day at the Rio Pavilion on the 2nd of December
  3. Panel representation: Hannah Reid and Robert Munroe at Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network (ELAN) “Exploring the Synergies between Ecosystem and Community-based Adaptation” at Rio Convention Pavilion Adaptation Day on the 3rd December
  4. Presentation: “How effective are ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation?” by Hannah Reid at the Development and Climate Days on the 4th of December
  5. Presentation: “Weighing the Evidence for the Effectiveness of Ecosystem-Based Adaptation”) at annual USAID SCAPES meeting, Washington, 8th December

The following written material was also prepared for and distributed at the Durban conference:

  1. Formal written update to UNFCCC NWP on this project
  2. IIED briefing paper: “Improving the evidence base for ecosystem-based adaptation" Disseminated at IIED and BirdLife stands and at IIED’s Development and Climate Days
  3. Project team briefing paper: “Does Ecosystem-based adaptation work? A review of the evidence-base for the effectiveness of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation” Disseminated at UNFCCC COP17

A number of outputs were produced for the Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network (ELAN):

  1. Report: Framework for assessing the evidence for the effectiveness of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation published and displayed on ELAN website
  2. Guidance document on the use of the framework for assessing the evidence for the effectiveness of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation (Munroe, R., Doswald, N., Roe, D., Reid, H., Giuliani, A., Castelli, I. (2011) Guidance on Applying the Framework for Assessing the Evidence for the Effectiveness of Ecosystem-based Approaches to Adaptation, BirdLife International, UNEP-WCMC, IIED, Cambridge, UK.)
  3. Report: ‘Evidence of Effectiveness of Ecosystem-based Approaches to Adaptation: Review of case studies

Additional outputs include:

  1. Workshop background document distributed at the workshop (developing an assessment framework to assess the evidence with) on the 20th of July, 2011
  2. Briefing paper disseminated at All Party Group for International Development and the Environment meeting “Natural solutions – how Ecosystem Services are tackling climate change and alleviating poverty” where Bhaskar Vira was presenting
  3. Department of Geography Political Ecology Reading Group Seminar on project to inform policy recommendations paper (13th March 2012)


CCI partners Involved

The Department of Land Economy's core research in economics, law and planning focuses on policies and regulations for the management of land and natural resources. There is particular expertise in...
BirdLife International is a strategic global partnership of conservation organisations in over 100 countries, working to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, and to promote...
The Department of Geography's research clusters focus on society and environment, development and political ecology, culture and demography, environmental processes, landscape modelling and climate...
The UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is the specialist biodiversity assessment arm of the United Nations Environment Programme, the world’s foremost intergovernmental...

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