Back to nature - a slogan much used at the recent international climate conference in Bonn, Germany. This slogan of nature-based solutions is reality in Lao PDR, a small land-locked country with a mission to graduate from its least-developed country status.
What is a nature-based solution? There are two groups of activities to slow down climate change and build resilience to its impacts: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation targets the reduction of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Adaptation helps people to adjust to the new climate circumstances, once the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has already changed their lives. At COP23, the international climate conference, nature-based solutions, such as replanting of forests or restoring of wetlands were promoted as a solution to climate change that addresses both mitigation and adaptation.
Water and forest management need to be addressed in combination for sustainable climate change resilience. Lao PDR is right on track: Together with communities, we replant degraded forests upstream from areas that are prone to floods and droughts. The natural mechanism of the forest works like a sponge that regulates the water, taking it in during heavy rain and storing it for times of drought.
Another approach is to restore wetlands that have dried out, due to the changing climate circumstances. These wetlands literally bring back life. Rain water is stored in the wetland, ready to be pumped to the rice-paddies during droughts. Local communities release fish into these restored water bodies, which improves their diet. With the wetland revitalized, animals like the white-winged duck settle back in, feeding on insects that would otherwise destroy the rice seedlings. Everyone stands to benefit.
Circular economy is another area Lao PDR can score high on the climate action agenda. Currently, our societies are built on a model of produce, use and throw away. Very much a nature-based solution itself, circular economy uses all materials within a closed cycle, so that there is no waste, but each residual feeds the creation of a next result or product. What would our world look like if we were to share rather than own, repair instead of replace?
At a COP23 side event, Lao PDR was pointed out as a leading example. Why? Because a closed cycle is no news in the Lao countryside. The traditional knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, involves sustainable use of products gleaned from nature, with negligible waste at the end of the chain. Domesticated water buffalos for example are used for plowing and transportation, as well as a constant source of milk for their offspring. Once this part of their life is over, their meat and intestines provide food, their skin is cooked into soup, and their hides, bones and horns are turned into tools. The parts that are left over make a great organic fertiliser, fertilising the land that will feed the next generation of water buffalos.
This example of circularity can be adopted to industrial products, such as in the textile industry, which produces value-added exports from the Lao economy. In a “closed-loop textile industry” no material is lost and virgin fibers and fabric are substituted with recycled textiles. Such workflows have to be planned out right from the beginning of the production chain until each product’s end-of-life-cycle.
By learning from Lao PDR’s traditional ways of life, the country may skip catching up with the unsustainable practices of modern throw-away economies and leapfrog into a postindustrial society, where resources are considered and used sustainably, in a never-ending cycle.