Digital Dialogues


July 2020

Digital Dialogue No. 5:

Scaling up Coastal Ecosystem Protection

The Challenge

Coastal habitats (e.g. saltwater wetlands, oyster reefs, dunes, and others) are globally our most imperiled ecosystems. While some states and territories have made efforts to restore their coastal habitats, overall, the rate of loss has sped up in the past several decades from various factors, including poorly planned development, pollution, and our changing climate. This severe loss is costly for communities since coastal habitats provide critical ecosystem services, for example reducing impacts from storms and hurricanes, slowing sea-level rise impacts, providing habitat, sequestering carbon, and filtering runoff. Additionally, protecting and restoring coastal habitats can help sustain coastal economies by providing opportunities for recreation and tourism.

Our coastal communities will be facing escalating flood and storm risks as the planet warms. To help manage this risk, mitigation experts are increasingly calling for greater use of nature-based solutions since these can be cost-effective, robust, and provide many co-benefits. That said, there are many barriers that have prevented communities from expanding investments in these ecosystems. These barriers include, for example, difficulties in setting aside larger, continuous areas for restoration along an already highly developed coastline; overcoming the longer time horizons needed to restore most ecosystems amid political time scales, which favor quick-wins; and challenges in scaling up financing for nature-based solutions in local environments with many competing priorities. This digital dialogue focuses, in particular, on the last challenge.


What financing measures for ecosystem protection and restoration are most successful?

What policies can help scale up financing for coastal ecosystem protection?


University Distinguished Professor, Department of Economics, Colorado State University

Scaling up coastal ecosystem protection in the United States and globally will need two types of innovative policies. Sadly, it appears that only natural disasters may spur such actions.

As I have argued in articles in Nature and Science, it is time to develop a global strategy for protecting coastal populations. There should be two elements to this strategy: a short-run emergency response and investments in long-term coastal plans. The recent devastation wrecked by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria across the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas are yet another sober reminder that it is the poorest nations, regions, and populations that are the most vulnerable to coastal disasters, and which need assistance in terms of immediate emergency response as well as long-term recovery efforts.

In the aftermath of an emergency, saving lives and providing relief to survivors is of paramount importance.  But beyond emergency response, coastlines need a long-term management strategy in the face of declining ecosystems and rising sea level rise. Thus, every region, state, province, and country should be developing 50-year coastal protection plans, similar to the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Governments do not need to do this on their own.  The global insurance and reinsurance industry also has a vested interest in coastal investment and protection plans.  Industry insured losses for Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean will be between $40 billion and $85 billion, with Puerto Rico accounting for more than 85% of the damages.  A study commissioned by Lloyds estimates that insurers have paid out over $200 billion in claims for damages due to coastal floods in the past 10 years.  These losses could be dramatically reduced if the insurance industry invested in conservation of wetlands, such as mangroves and marshes, which provide natural protection against these risks. Colleagues and I estimate that such conservation globally would yield an additional $52 billion annually for the insurance industry, which would be a substantial return on their investment in protecting coastal ecosystems.


Program Manager, Ecosystem-based Adaptation, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Healthy resilient ecosystems lay the foundation for sustainable economic development, food and water security, risk reduction, and climate action. A recent study estimated that without mangroves, flood losses would rise by about $65 billion annually, and 15 million additional people would be affected globally. However, despite the documented benefits of working with nature, financing for Nature-based Solutions (NbS) remains a barrier to wider uptake and few governments have invested in these approaches as part of their climate adaptation strategies. An analysis found that since 2016 only about 15% of the Adaptation Fund’s allocated funding has gone to ecosystem related activities.

So how can we scale up financing for ecosystem-based management?

  • Conservation financing must demonstrate measurable impacts. For conservation-climate nexus financing to work, it must be part of a long-term program and not just project-oriented short-term investment. Over my 25 years in this sector, I have observed that short-term field projects rarely leave any meaningful impacts, especially in the context of climate change. Not only does the Return on Investment on conservation take time, but also efforts to promote policy uptake based on evidence from successful actions takes its due course. The Government of Germany has been a leader in this area and their International Climate Initiative (BMU-IKI), after a decade of investment in climate change related projects, reassessed their funding strategy. They have now shifted from projects with a 3-4 year lifespan, with each project averaging €4-5 million, towards projects spanning 8-12 years, with €15-30 million invested in a particular area. We are already seeing this approach working in targeted countries. I would strongly urge other donors to follow IKI’s example to work towards transformative change relating to climate resilience.
  • This must be followed by public sector investment by local governments for long-term sustainability. For that to happen, Return on Investment for conservation showing robust science-based monitoring and impact evaluation will have to first be demonstrated by donor funded initiatives.
  • This is where following functional and widely accepted Ecosystem-based Adaptation Quality Standards come in. Current practices leave project design and implementation to individual understanding and expertise, making comparative analysis near impossible. Universally standardised processes in project design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation will help draw lessons through comparative analysis. This would not only inform and influence conservation policies and practices but also act as confidence building measures for scaled investment policies and strategies by donor communities and enhanced public investment by countries.

In short, we must break the silos between different sectors, programmes within conservation organisations, donors’ funding windows, academia, and implementing agencies to maximise conservation impacts and showcase the role of nature and functioning ecosystems as a keystone of global resilience.


Deputy Commissioner on Climate and Sustainability, California Department of Insurance

One element of a successful expansion of financing for coastal ecosystem protection is the integration of two long-standing public policy goals, reducing disaster risks and protecting coastal ecosystems. Sensitive ecosystems, including those with mangroves, reefs, sand dunes, and wetlands slow the movement of water, reducing damages from high rainfall events and storm surges. Broader restoration of these ecosystems is a proactive approach to reduce future recovery costs. Therefore, considering nature-based solutions as part of existing disaster risk financing and planning at local, regional, and federal levels could produce a scaled up, cohesive strategy for sustained ecosystem financing. Insurance solutions can complement and strengthen existing ecosystem financing, providing an infusion of funds that empower local communities and prevent backsliding on ecosystem restoration goals.

Coastal zones demonstrate some of the most striking current examples of nature-based solutions. Recent research indicates that the northeastern wetlands of the United States reduced damages by $625 million during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and globally, mangroves protect more than 18 million people and lessen the flood damage in coastal areas by more than $82 billion a year. Urbanized areas are also focusing on wetlands and nature-based approaches, such as Berlin’s “Sponge City” initiative, launched in 2017, which strives to improve the water retention capacity of the city with investments in wetlands, green roofs, and permeable street surfaces.

Insurance strategies for ecosystems can enable financing for timely interventions. For coastal ecosystems, crossing ecological thresholds can exponentially increase costs, such as a lake becoming eutrophic, an invasive species becoming established, or the acute degradation of a coral reef or wetland. In such cases, faster responsiveness is critical and insurance-based concepts could enable bursts of restorative financing to meet unexpected challenges. For example, the Coastal Zone Management Trust in coastal Mexico provides an insurance solution to finance economic and coral reef resilience. The insurance policy is triggered by large storms with strong wind speeds, and once triggered, the coverage provides funds for quickly addressing reef restoration before the window of opportunity closes.

Pre-disaster mitigation actions tend to achieve long-term protection and savings. Community-level insurance concepts, such as risk transfer policies, could enable communities to invest more funds into ecosystems pre-disaster, while having insurance for recovery. Earlier investments that recruit natural ecosystems into the risk management framework could create the most resilient long-term scenario for coastal ecosystems and communities.


Research Professor and Head of the Coastal Resilience Lab at University of California Santa Cruz

Research increasingly shows the value and cost-effectiveness of natural defenses such as reefs and wetlands for flood risk reduction. For example, without reefs, the costs of storms would double globally and in the US, reefs reduce more than $1.8 billion in storm losses to tens of thousands of people annually. These risk reduction benefits are significant, and provide a strong case for conserving and protecting our coastal ecosystems. We need to use these benefits to create incentives for wetland conservation and restoration.

Homeowners and municipalities could receive reductions on insurance premiums for managing wetlands. Recently, we showed that just small incentives could tip homeowners in coastal Alabama to invest in rebuilding wetlands instead of bulkheads. Storm recovery spending should include more support for natural defenses. New financial tools such as resilience insurance and resilience bonds, which provide incentives for investing in measures that reduce risk, could support restoration efforts.  Indeed there are a growing number of case studies where ecosystems, insurance, and climate risk finance are being combined to help communities adapt and manage growing risks.

There are a few key requirements for expanding financial incentives for nature-based solutions. First, we need more analyses of the risk reduction benefits of ecosystems.  There are robust, industry-standard measures of the benefits of coastal habitats for flood reduction, but more work is needed on the roles of nature in reducing risks from fires, landslides, and freshwater floods. Where these nature-based benefits are clearly shown, then they should be used in insurance industry models to offer premium reductions in communities that preserve and restore these ecosystem benefits. Governments and development banks should offer more grants, loans, and recovery funding for nature-based solutions instead of just underwriting expensive gray solutions. Ecosystem-based alternatives should be required to be evaluated in cost benefit analyses as they will often offer more cost-effective solutions.

Finally there is a huge opportunity for greater cooperation among environmental, disaster recovery, and insurance agencies, groups, and businesses to provide better outcomes for our most vulnerable communities and in helping them to build resilience, naturally.


Head of Ecosystem Resilience, Climate and Resilience Hub, Willis Towers Watson

Many of the most successful financing measures for coastal ecosystem protection and restoration are traditionally grant-based from philanthropic or public sources focused on conservation and the protection of biodiversity. However, coastal communities benefit from a multitude of ecosystem services, which are not currently fully integrated into the decision-making of individuals, enterprises, financial institutions, or governments. For example, coastal climate resilience and ecosystem health are deeply intertwined, and ecosystem degradation can have an enormous impact on the risk profile of coastal communities—increasing post-event losses and even impacting insurance affordability in the long-term. Therefore, quantifying the value of ecosystem services (and the risks of ecological degradation) in concrete financial terms has the potential to unlock additional funding to maintain healthy ecosystems beyond the status quo by laying bare implicit contingent liabilities.

For example, while the coastal protection value of ecosystems is understood, and even quantified in scientific literature, it has not been successfully harnessed at scale. For one, the ownership and responsibility for the maintenance and restoration of ecosystems is often held by a different group than the beneficiaries of their ecosystem services (who are often also the most vulnerable and least able to pay for those services). But there are also technical barriers, and there remains a high frictional cost to integrating ecological information into financial metrics. For example, a mangrove forest is more dynamic than a concrete seawall, susceptible to anthropogenic and natural pressures (and the same acute climate hazards that effect grey assets); hard engineering is often more able to satisfy static building standards and regulations, quickly.

Beyond the opportunity associated with the development and acceptance of ‘engineering design standards’ for ecosystems (which would help to scale the use of green and grey-green infrastructure in new development and/or retrofitting and rebuilding), I will highlight two significant potential levers to scale up investments in ecosystems supporting the resilience and prosperity of coastal communities:

1. Include natural assets in public asset registers and risk management frameworks.

Ecosystems are currently hidden from the public sector balance sheet, which means that their value is not accounted for in finance departments / treasuries. Making natural assets explicit on public asset registers would clarify ownership and governance and allow the bodies responsible for their maintenance and restoration to manage contingent liabilities to ecosystems themselves by integrating them into risk management and response frameworks and financing strategies (e.g. insurance for ecosystems). This, in turn, would make investing in ecosystems less risky and more familiar.

2. Develop a framework and robust standard for the monitoring and/or disclosure of contingent liabilities associated with ecosystem service dependencies.

A more complete picture of private and public sector financial liabilities concerning natural capital (i.e. the public goods that are taken for granted by individuals, enterprises, and governments alike) provides a financial lever for beneficiaries to make the case for investments in the maintenance, protection, and restoration of ecosystems on which they depend. A disclosure framework would provide the standardized data required for financial institutions to integrate ecosystem services into their investment decision-making and reward healthy, well maintained ecosystems.


Director, Resilient Landscapes, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)

Climate change is increasing coastal and riverine flooding, which by 2030 is expected to impact nearly 150 million people annually. Addressing these coastal risks will require a significant reallocation of capital, which will either be orderly and planned or disorderly and chaotic. Defining a new system of financial policies and risk assessments will be required.

Public sector financing tools are providing capital to demonstrate solutions. Federal disaster programs like the new FEMA BRIC program and CDBG-MIT are emerging to provide billions of dollars over the next decade for natural and resilient investments. States like New York are proposing significant bond initiatives to fund natural infrastructure. Virginia and New Jersey are leveraging their participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon emissions cap-and-trade program including ten other states, to designate state revenue for projects that build resilience for flood-prone and coastal communities. New legislation is being proposed in Congress to establish a state resilience revolving loan fund to provide additional funding streams for local governments to carry out hazard mitigation projects that reduce disaster risk. And Environmental Impact Bonds (EIB) are maturing into a new investment vehicle connecting public and private capital. EDF conducted a case study of an EIB in Louisiana in 2018 and EIBs have been set up in cities including Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Baltimore.

To scale the implementation of natural infrastructure to mitigate flooding, we cannot simply rely on public funding – we must unlock private capital. Financial markets are designed to profit from monetizing risks. To unlock private capital and dramatically increase investments in coastal protection, the coastal resilience community must fully understand how increased coastal risks are currently being internalized within the financial system and where risks are not being monetized. Who bears the risks and who ultimately pays? How much are insurance policies providing a “shock absorber” and what happens when the shocks can’t be absorbed? How are at-risk financial actors likely to respond to an increase in climate-driven flooding? The risks will differ for the variety of stakeholders, including homeowners, businesses with vulnerable assets, banks, insurers, and governments.

Through a rigorous assessment of the current financial system, we will be able to identify the sectors where risk is heightened and design policies to direct private capital towards solutions that protect coastal systems.  Failing to delve deeply into these questions threatens a chaotic future where capital flees the coasts, stranding significant public assets and private investments.

A final note on financial policies for coastal protection – not every community has the same capacity to address risks. Any financing mechanisms must recognize and begin to rectify the historic discrimination and underinvestment in coastal communities of color and communities with a disproportionately high environmental burden (i.e. Louisiana’s cancer alley). Additionally, resources must be allocated to help offset the cost-sharing requirements for federal funding that can often pose a disproportionate burden on minority, economically-disadvantaged, and rural communities. The shifting of capital from the highest-risk coastal areas threatens to erode any modest gains realized by minority communities.


Managing Director, Rebuild by Design

New York’s natural water features—from the Atlantic Coast to the Hudson River, from the Finger Lakes to the Great Lakes—are a driving force in the State’s human geography. These waterfronts have long dictated the movement and settlement of communities throughout the state, and are currently home to 90% of New York’s population. Now, as climate change increases the frequency and volatility of severe weather events, these features are further dictating the livelihoods of waterfront communities by putting them at risk.

Over the last 10 years, every county in New York State has been impacted by severe storms and flooding, tropical storms, or hurricanes. Sixty percent of counties were affected by five or more disaster events. The major federal disaster declarations for these counties totaled $37.3 billion in federal aid for recovery efforts and is projected to be as much as $55 billion for the next decade.

Nature-based approaches can help aliviate some of this risk, however communities do not have access to funding sources to support this work. Rebuild by Design worked with New York State to create and pass enabling legislation for a $3 Billion Environmental Bond Act which will be on the ballot for voter approval in November 2020. A Bond Act gives authority to the state to borrow money that can only be used for a specific purpose. It is a great first step, but our communities are going to need permanent funding sources that can be used for deeper research, project development and maintenance, and processes ensure that every dollar spent reaches the maximum ecological benefit and flood reduction goal.

A longer-term solution would be a surcharge on certain types of Property and Casualty Insurance to fund nature-based approaches. Goldman Sachs estimates that in New York State, a two-percent surcharge would cost the average auto or residential insurance policy-holder an extra $2 a month, which over 10 years, would have a capital capacity of more than $17 billion. This surcharge is progressive because higher-income people insure more expensive items, and lower-income people insure less. Lower-income policyholders could further be exempted from this surcharge. It also has a direct policy connection. Over time, property and casualty payouts will be lower for some insurers (such as those who write policies for commercial flood and basement backup riders), enabling a reduction in rates. Premiums could be lowered for those in the FEMA flood zones through the Community Rating System program which can reduce National Flood Insurance Premiums by five to 45 percent depending on the action a municipality takes.

As we rebuild our communities and economy from the current health crisis, we need to simultaneously help communities understand and prepare for the costs and impacts of the climate crisis which could further exacerbate health disparities. We need policies that account for the uneven impacts of climate change today and in the long-term. The Environmental Bond Act will move the State in the right direction; however, a sustainable funding stream, such as an insurance surcharge would reduce long-term risk and ensure the enjoyment of the State’s waterfronts for generations to come.


Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future

In the United States, we delegate most land use regulation to local governments. That regulation takes the form of zoning codes, which establish allowable uses, such as commercial or residential development, and intensity of uses, such as building footprints and minimum lot sizes, in different areas across a jurisdiction. It seems natural to try and use zoning to protect natural lands and sensitive ecosystems—“downzoning” areas targeted for protection, for example.  But in a world with private property rights, these regulatory hammers quickly bump up against “takings” accusations and legal challenges. Local governments can instead try to purchase land or easements from private property owners who are willing to sell. But where will this money come from?

A creative alternative, which still operates under the general zoning framework, is transfer of development rights (TDR).  TDR redirects development from locations that have been designated for conservation (“sending” areas) to other locations deemed suitable for more intensive development (“receiving” areas).  When a landowner in a sending area sells her development rights, an easement or restrictive covenant is placed on her land limiting further development. The demand for development rights comes from the “density bonus” they allow in receiving areas—i.e., developers can use TDRs to go beyond baseline zoning limits. In coastal areas, natural lands that provide protection from floods and storm surge, buffer zones near estuaries and rivers, and other lands with sensitive ecosystems could be designated as sending areas. Landowners in those areas would be allocated development rights that they could sell to developers for use in other areas.

TDRs have been used across the country to achieve a variety of land use goals. One of their main advantages is the reliance on private funding to drive conservation. The government does not have to find the money to directly buy land or easements itself. One study found that if Calvert County, Maryland, had purchased the development rights sold over the first 30 years of its TDR program, which permanently preserved 23,000 acres of land, it would have spent approximately $50 million.

Several factors are key to designing and implementing a successful TDR program. Probably most important is that the government identify the right sending and receiving areas and set up the parameters of the program (baseline TDR allocations, trading rules, etc.) so that there is adequate TDR supply and demand. Some studies suggest a government-operated TDR bank helps the market function better by facilitating transactions across time periods. An ideal TDR program for coastal conservation would be regional, encompassing multiple local jurisdictions. This can present a challenge, but there are examples: the Highlands region of New Jersey and the Puget Sound region in Washington have regional TDR programs and the Lake Tahoe program operates across two states, California and Nevada. State governments, and regional planning agencies, can provide leadership in this regard, coordinating across local jurisdictions and providing incentives for cooperation.


Coastal Planning Specialist, Florida Sea Grant

As sea levels continue to rise, some areas without the resources for protective infrastructure will eventually be abandoned. As this happens, how will we cleanup areas we leave behind so that our coastlines are not foul, toxic, dangerous places?  How will we pay? Who will pay? Why does this matter? While both commercial and residential properties will create pollution and public nuisances that also undermine the ability of coastal ecosystems to migrate landward, this essay addresses residential property. Here is an innovative—some might say unrealistic—funding proposal for cleaning up abandoned residential properties by prospectively charging the property.

The first step: analysis establishing estimated abandonment dates by which water and flooding levels are projected to overwhelm the property and the financial ability of the local government to pay for infrastructure to address the impacts. Second: the local government implements a special assessment district over the properties. Third, the local government develops estimates of per parcel cleanup costs.  Fourth, the local government establishes a yearly special assessment charged on each property’s tax bill for the annual amortized amount of the total cleanup cost using the estimated abandonment date to establish the amortization time.

Why place this cost on the property? One might argue that the property developer, local government, and even fossil-fuel companies share responsibility for the eventual loss of residential properties. The case for developer responsibility for new development is very strong and should be evaluated moving forward. But for built-out areas, the developer has already pocketed any proceeds of the development and externalized the long-term costs onto others. Local governments share responsibility, but they will often be experiencing such severe financial crises by the time that they are losing meaningful areas of land to sea-level rise that it is unlikely local governments will have general funds available for cleanup. So, should the state or federal government pay? Asked differently: Should uninvolved taxpayers that do not live in hazardous coastal areas dedicate their tax dollars to subsidizing coastal property owners yet again?

This leaves the property itself as the most realistic, efficient, and logical choice for paying cleanup costs. In many cases we still have time to implement such a process and amortize the costs to properties over enough years that the annual cost is not be overly burdensome. Regardless, any proposal to make properties pay will result in strenuous opposition. To make matters even more difficult, this approach to cleanup requires us to go against our instincts that we do not expend money or political capital today to address a problem we will experience in the future. Climate change, hazard mitigation, and the current pandemic demonstrate the difficulty of fighting this tendency. Will our aversion to incurring costs today to address a future problem also prevent us from acting with enough time to implement a proposal that prospectively funds cleanups to protect our environment, public health, and economy?


Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future

Beach and dune construction have long been deployed to reduce storm damages. There are well established design and construction practices for tailoring beach and dune construction to site-specific landscape situations. Storm modeling for different designs is readily translated to predict effectiveness of these systems. These effects, as well as life cycle costs, can be reported with an appreciation of the uncertainty in these predictions. This is not the case, however, for other systems of natural infrastructure, in particular sea grass areas, shallow water marsh, fringe wetlands, and oyster reefs. Design and build best practices, modeling to predict effectiveness for specific places (especially for larger storms that often are the concern in coastal planning), and predicting life cycle costs, are all still in the research and development stage for these systems. Scaling up investment in all forms of natural infrastructure will require well-established and widely accepted analytical practices to emerge from current research and development efforts—similar to what now has been achieved for beach and dune construction.

Costs for beach and dune building often are justified because they reduce predicted storm damages in areas of high density and high property values. For this protection, funds can be secured from property owners who are assessed fees to pay all or a part of the cost or from national governments and local communities who tap general taxpayer funds. Relative to beach and dune projects, other forms of natural infrastructure may require a larger land footprint and more extensive and complicated construction, resulting in higher initial costs, if not greater future operation and maintenance costs, as well. Realized benefits may lag construction costs, imposing an opportunity cost of waiting. Meanwhile, storm damage reduction benefits may be widely dispersed and may accrue to lower income properties and communities, limiting benefits calculated in the conventional ways that now favor areas with a high density of high valued properties. For these other forms, scaling up may require re-thinking the standard justification for making storm hazard reduction investments. Scaling up may require tapping a variety of revenue sources that benefit from natural infrastructure – a challenge calling for credible analysis of when natural infrastructure offers environmental benefits justifying a taxpayer contribution. Scaling up, in the near term, will be best served by tapping opportunities to invest in natural infrastructure within a system of sea walls, surge barriers, pumps, relocation and elevation. In these settings there should be a commitment to monitor, measure and experiment in order to learn while doing.


Floodplain Manager, Woodbridge, New Jersey

Maximizing successful investments in coastal ecological networks typically requires multifaceted fiscal appropriations, data driven analysis, foundational knowledge of the subject matter, motivation, and the leverage to do so. Despite the inherent hurdles associated with controlling these economic drivers, those with capital interests are finding new utility associated with incorporating climate resilience metrics into projects. Institutionalized awareness of climate-related risk and the benefits of investing in resilient infrastructure have diversified potential funding sources for projects, while also creating a localized urgency to invest in nature.  For example, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 highlighted natural infrastructure.

Bond ratings mirror the heartbeat of governmental functionality, revenue securities, and political power. As more large-scale credit agencies begin to study climate change data, better understand the benefits of natural coastal ecosystems, and examine sunny-day flooding situations, the fiscal worthiness of coastal governmental entities may become more closely linked to effective nature-based floodplain management policies. Thus, funding mechanisms to fortify coastal habitats may come through indirect channels, such as through larger potential governmental revenue streams and corporate climate resilience investments. Investment in coastal ecological protection can no longer be waved-off as theoretical, pushed-aside as primarily preservationist oriented, or marginalized as a matter of on-going conservation.

Policies to best protect coastal ecological systems include balancing human cultural constructs and the natural world, however, now more than ever, these decisions must include preparation for adaptation. Policy can no longer wait for disaster to strike, and preemptive provisions, which make it easier for natural systems to attenuate wave energy, absorb storm surges, and rebound quickly after severe weather events will enhance the ecological integrity of the coastline, while stimulating long-term governmental economic viability. To accomplish these objectives, innovative policy frameworks will require significant investigative considerations, such as the potential consolidation of governing bodies, land use changes focused on habitat restoration and designated marsh migration areas, scrutiny centered on acquisition and relocation of high-risk structures, shoreline nature-based re-creation and enhancement, and the protection of healthy ecological resources. Thus, altering the matter by which credit worthiness is calculated means coastal ecological protection may have found a unified monetary accord as an indicator and strategy of climate resilience.  As such, one may say that the true goldmine of the coastline is (and always was) found where the land meets the sea.


Executive Director, Wetlands Watch

Nearly all of our ecosystem protection and restoration work is directly financed through government-funded programs, indirectly financed through tax deductions and credits for conservation easements, or funded by foundation grants.

Environmental protection and restoration are seen as a common good, returning little direct revenue to any single entity willing to pay in the marketplace to conduct this work, leaving the government, philanthropists, and an occasional corporate donation to fund projects. With competing demands for the funding of common goods (e.g.: environment, education, arts, and now COVID-19 relief) and given the scale of the environmental work to be done, there is not enough money to do the job.

The challenge is to build additional value into environmental protection and restoration work in order to attract more funding or enable access to different sources of funding. In built-out areas, development of “co-benefits” for environmental protection and restoration has been successful, with these projects generating credits toward meeting regulatory requirements, earning deductions on flood insurance (if the project is in a floodplain), or meeting passive recreation/open space goals.

For governments, the ability to spend a dollar on a strategically designed and located “green infrastructure” project to simultaneously meet multiple goals of pollution reduction, floodplain management, and open space/recreational benefits makes these investments very cost-effective. Focusing on multiple benefits also expands funding options to different pots of public funds: stormwater fees, flood damage reduction funds, and parks and recreation budgets are now in play.

The emerging field of “green bonds” and “impact investing” may provide additional funding, especially when the co-benefits can be quantified. The first of these investment instruments are being piloted in Coastal Virginia and are being watched closely given the urgency of sea level rise impacts and accelerated ecosystem losses. We are also exploring a strategy using private land trusts to negotiate conservation easements on urban/suburban parcels with an end goal of removal of structures and ecosystem restoration.

Simultaneous efforts are needed to slow ecosystem conversion. Enhanced regulatory programs, zoning ordinances, and building codes, for example, can provide ecosystem protection by making “business as usual” too expensive. However, these measures come at higher political and economic costs, the latter being borne by the eventual purchaser of the developed property. While it is clear that these higher costs get us closer to the true value of the ecosystem services provided, this transition will be met with resistance.


Former Policy Analyst & Project Manager, Wharton Risk Center

Nature-based solutions (NbS) are one of the most cost-effective and long-term solutions within larger disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation contexts, yet they are often overlooked.  In particular, the longer time horizons needed to restore many coastal ecosystems to a point at which they can provide critical ecosystem services, like protecting communities from damaging floods and storm surges, are a major barrier for many communities with limited municipal budgets and the need to see results over shorter political time scales to justify municipal spending.

While there is significant room for development of new or improved financial tools from the private sector or private-public partnerships, which could promote NbS, we also need coordination across Federal agencies through the creation of a National Coastal Resilience Plan, and subsequent legislation, to ensure that more Federal funding goes towards long-term solutions, with ecosystem restoration as a major priority.  For example, the plan should include guidance on how to expand restoration efforts across political boundaries and how to ensure that Federal resources are allocated in an equitable way in different coastal states and regions.  In building private-public partnerships, the plan could also incorporate aspects of the European Commission’s Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles, where financial and investment institutions voluntarily commit to engage in practices that protect and restore ocean health.

Since most local officials do not have a background related to ecosystem management, the plan should prioritize funding complementary education and awareness training for local officials on the benefits of NbS or hybrid solutions rather than using traditional grey infrastructure, and how existing policies and funding mechanisms could be utilized.  Technical assistance should be made available to help protect and restore privately held lands, which also make up a significant portion of our coastline.

There are already many Federal programs aimed at protecting and restoring wetland ecosystems, but these should be provided significantly more funding.  By increasing funding for existing grant programs, these agency offices can expand their efforts, including to help restore nonfederal wetlands for climate mitigation and resilience.  For example, the National Coastal Zone Management Program (administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is a voluntary partnership between the Federal government and U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states and territories to address national coastal issues. The program takes a comprehensive approach to coastal resource management, with restoration as a major priority.  Another NOAA program, the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, protects threatened coastal and estuarine lands by direct purchase or conservation easements.

While similarly well-established programs administered by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish and Wildlife Service should be expanded, protecting and financing intracoastal waterway health should also be better built into the responsibilities of additional Federal departments, like the U.S. Coastguard, which already has engineers on staff for maintenance of piers.  A comprehensive National Coastal Resilience Plan will entail participation from all Federal agencies and awareness raising outside of normal disaster risk management and conservation spheres to ensure that ecosystem restoration becomes a national priority.  While individual states and communities should create their own coastal resilience plans, instituting a national plan would help provide significant guidance and funding of priority measures, like scaling ecosystem restoration.


Assistant Professor, Head of the Coastal and Nature-based Adaptation Lab, East Carolina University

Nature helps protect us from disasters. It stands to reason that nature can also help us recover from and prepare for disasters. Yet, disaster recovery financing is not used for large-scale coastal restoration or protection. Do we have the pieces of the puzzle to move from just recovering to recovering with nature?

Coastal communities and scientific experts have long understood that coastal wetlands and reefs can absorb the shock of high waves or a cyclone and provide myriad other benefits. There is a considerable body of evidence, built over decades of scientific study, showing that coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves reduce wave energy. Recent studies show that coastal wetlands reduce flooding and damages to people and property during tropical cyclones and place a monetary value on this protection. Beyond the science, coastal communities living adjacent to ecosystems are highly aware of the benefits they derive from nature. Across Pacific Island nations, vulnerable coastal communities often turn to nature-based solutions to protect their homes and their natural environment.

What is new is our realization that effective, sustainable disaster recovery and preparedness mean putting nature first. Recovery financing after coastal disasters has typically skewed heavily towards rebuilding hard infrastructure. In 2019, the U.S. government signed into law a disaster relief bill to help communities recover from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Michael and Florence, and other disasters. The bill allocated $100 million for conservation efforts and over 17 times that amount for flood and storm damage recovery efforts. Putting nature first in these efforts will significantly scale up financing available for coastal restoration.

Countries and disaster management agencies around the world are already taking steps in this direction, for example, allowing the counting of ecosystem service benefits from natural ecosystems in traditional benefit-cost analyses, or by developing methods to account for natural wealth within national accounting frameworks. Ultimately, whether the disaster is a tropical cyclone or a global pandemic, the loss of nature is a material risk to businesses, economies, and communities.

Cyclone Amphan, which ravaged southern Bangladesh and eastern India in May 2020–once again–highlighted the importance and complexity of building back better. The pieces–from the science of ecosystems and risk reduction to national financing mechanisms to understanding local preferences–are all there. What is missing is the integration of these pieces when making crucial decisions about how to recover from a disaster. The success of these integration efforts will determine how effectively we recover with nature.