Dr Francesca Vantaggiato, King's College London – Written evidence (NSD0031)

 

Submission from Dr Francesca Pia Vantaggiato, Lecturer in Public Policy at King's College London

 

My name is Francesca Vantaggiato. I am Lecturer in Public Policy at the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London. I study governance issues concerning climate adaptation, with particular focus on coastal flooding and sea level rise. Before joining King’s, I was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis (USA), Department of Environmental Science & Policy.

 

My response to this inquiry stems from my experience in California. There, I have attended policy meetings and interviewed stakeholders working on nature-based solutions for sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere in California. I believe their experience and the governance challenges they faced, as well as the solutions they found to address them, might be of interest to the workings of this committee. Those findings are outlined in various policy and academic publications. The most relevant to the workings of this committee can be found at this link (section on San Diego county) and this link (sections 4 and 5).

 

This contribution answers parts of questions 3, 4 and 6 and specifically the following sub-questions:

 

3.2              Are there good examples of nature-based solutions already being undertaken in the UK or elsewhere, and what can we learn from them?

 

4.2              Are there examples of projects which have engaged with stakeholders and local communities to implement nature-based solutions successfully, and what can we learn from them?

 

6.1              What measuring, reporting, and verification requirements should be put in place to determine the degree of success of nature-based solutions? Which techniques and technologies are best suited to accomplishing robust monitoring?

 

On 3.2:

Nature-based solutions are very hotly debated in California. Clearly, they are easier to conceive and implement where suitable natural resources are available and ‘only’ need to be restored. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (see also this link) is a successful example of nature-based solution to sea level rise.

 

I am more directly familiar with an infrastructure project aimed at protecting an ocean-side highway from frequent inundation in a small community in San Diego County, called Encinitas. There, after a few years of bargaining and coordination between the local government and local public agencies of Encinitas, state agencies tasked with environmental protection (State Coastal Conservancy, Coastal Commission), federal agencies tasked with permitting, local environmental organisations (San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy), and universities, the highway is now protected by an innovative combination of ‘green’ and ‘grey’ infrastructure: sand dunes underpinned by concrete (but invisible) rocks. As my interviewees explained to me, nature-based solutions (sand dunes) have shorter lifespans than concrete-based ones (sand will erode, plants will need re-planting) but, crucially, are adaptable, re-scalable, more aesthetically pleasing, and achieve important co-benefits e.g. habitat preservation, public access (in that case, to the beach), and potentially enhanced traffic and tourism of the surrounding areas (a natural park). To these stakeholders, committing to build a wall of concrete without firm knowledge of how tall it should be to fend off sea level rise, while destroying the natural beauty of the environment, felt riskier than topping up sand dunes whenever they erode.

 

Overall, my experience in California suggests that one of the main difficulties to adoption and implementation of nature-based solutions is not (lack of) science or even uncertainty, but organisational mission. Namely, many local governments and public agencies are not used to conceiving of infrastructure plans based on nature-based solutions. All they know is how to build with concrete. Amongst public agencies dealing with transportation or infrastructure more generally, there is diffidence concerning the savviness of adopting nature-based solutions that is based more on habit than on science. Expressions such as ‘you cannot fend off sea level rise with a bit of grass/sand’ (referring to wetland restoration or sand dunes) are not uncommon in some of the interviews I carried out. Overcoming such diffidence is possible, as shown by the case of highway at Encinitas, with the help of copious government/external funding and appropriate governance arrangements.

 

On 4.2:

In the case of highway 1 at Encinitas, a successful combination of funding, availability of natural resources and facilitation/mediation by one of the parties have been pivotal to the approval and implementation of the projects. In that case, early involvement of all relevant stakeholders plus the intermediation of the funder (the Coastal Conservancy) between the Coastal Commission (espousing green solutions) and the local government (used to building with concrete) have been unanimously recognised as pivotal to the success of the enterprise. The fact that the sand needed to build the dunes was readily available thanks to the routine dredging operations of the nearby San Elijo Lagoon was another fortunate coincidence that helped speeding up implementation.

 

The fact that the whole project was contained within one jurisdiction also significantly decreased the complexity of the coordination process, as compared to similar initiatives in other parts of California which struggle to get off the ground due to differing priorities of involved local governments. These differing priorities stem from (lack of) budget and fiscal arrangements. Quite simply, many climate adaptation decisions are land use decisions. Earmarking land for adaptation infrastructure presents the opportunity cost of not using it for development. In California, local governments get most of their revenue from the tax base constituted by homes and commercial developments. Those who want to expand that tax base are reluctant to earmark land for other purposes, however important they may be for adaptation. This is an issue that holds important lessons for the UK at national and local level, as permitting new development may entail significant future costs in terms of adaptation.

 

On 6.1:

Monitoring is absolutely crucial not only to the success of nature-based solutions but to their very viability. Monitoring allows collecting data on the project, keep stakeholders engaged, and envision future developments. In the case of Encinitas, the monitoring task has been entrusted to the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy. Every 5 years, all involved stakeholders will meet and, based on the Conservancy’s assessment of the state of the dunes, discuss possible improvements. Entrusting monitoring to one of the stakeholders rather than an external contractor provides for the ‘shadow of the future’ necessary for cooperation to last.

 

My interviewees did not hide that the dunes are a ‘temporary’ solution; global sea level rise levels will probably require the highway to be raised or moved inland after ~2050. For now, the dunes fulfil their mission by representing a cost-effective solution to the already pressing problem of frequent inundation of the highway, which is used by local residents and businesses and has no viable alternatives.

 

In sum, early stakeholder involvement, facilitation between stakeholders with different organisational missions, diversity of involved stakeholders (the Encinitas project involved public agencies from all levels as well as civil society organisations) and built-in provisions for monitoring and reporting on the state of the dunes entrusted to one of the parties have proven necessary for the success of the Encinitas project, now widely taken as example of ‘successful cooperation’ for transportation adaptation to sea level rise throughout California. I believe that this case offers important governance lessons for any government setting out to explore the feasibility of nature-based solutions to climate change.

 

10 September 2021