ACDI director Mark New wins Frontiers Planet Prize

28 April 2023 | Story Michelle Shields. Photo Michelle Shields. Read time 6 min.
Prize winner Mark New
Prize winner Mark New

The director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), Mark New, along with researchers Petra Holden, Piotr Wolski, Romaric C Odoulami, Joyce Kimutai, Tiro Nkemelang, Kamoru A Lawal and and collaborating researcher Alanna Rebelo from the Agricultural Research Council have recently been awarded the prestigious Frontiers Planet Prize for their research on nature-based solutions and climate change.

In 2022, the Frontiers Research Foundation launched its third initiative, an international science competition called the Frontiers Prize. The prize aims to directly fund and accelerate scientific research to stabilise our planetary ecosystem. This international science competition offers three awards for scientific breakthroughs that show the greatest potential to help keep humanity within any one of the nine boundaries, as described by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The prize’s international champions each receive funding and worldwide exposure for their research. The prize money is awarded as a grant to the winner’s research institution to fund their continued research.

This year New and his team were awarded the prize for their work on nature-based solutions (NbS) outlined in the recent journal article Nature-based solutions in mountain catchments reduce impact of anthropogenic climate change on drought streamflow, published in Communications Earth & Environment.

“Receiving this prize is a huge surprise, and a great honour. The paper that won the prize is a cumulation of five years of research, involving a large team of researchers, and builds on many other papers, datasets, and research outputs. I’m really happy that the prize is recognising the role of local solutions, which if scaled, can have planetary scale impacts,” said New.

Climate change, water security and ecosystem integrity

The winning research aimed to explore regional scale interactions between climate change, water security and ecosystem integrity, asking the question, “Can NbS reduce the risks to water security from climate change and land degradation?” To investigate these questions, the team tested whether catchment restoration through removing alien invasive trees could have ameliorated the impacts of climate change on Cape Town’s 2015–2018 drought.

The research showed that restoration of catchments which are heavily invaded by woody alien plants can offset some of the anthropogenically derived drought risk. However, the team also found that human influence on drought risk was already sufficiently large that catchment restoration could not completely offset climate change impacts.

“Our paper shows the importance of integrating nature-based solutions into a broader portfolio of adaptation options for managing water resources under climate change. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to lead this paper under Mark’s guidance and with a team of inspiring African scientists. It means a lot to me that African-led research and Southern African relevant nature-based solutions – such as invasive alien tree clearing - are being showcased in the global arena,” said Holden, the lead author on the paper.

Implications for planetary health and scalability

An element of the prize is to highlight how research may lead to immediate impact either through research innovation, stakeholder collaboration or policy interventions. The authors highlighted these key areas of impact specifically focusing on the importance of reliable mapping and modelling in planning for and investing in nature-based solutions.

New explained, “With reliable and well-calibrated models, we can better quantify the buffering capacity of NbS. Equally so, remote sensing coupled tohigh-resolution modelling can identify the most important locations for restoration. The data generated through these methods can be used in financial modelling for investment cases for restoration. The research really highlights that NbS can help offset climate impacts, but its effectiveness varies from location to location.”

Building a resilient planet

Implementing the catchment restoration and maintenance interventions highlighted in this research addresses four interlinked Planetary Boundaries: (i) freshwater use, by enhancing supply side resilience; (ii/iii) land system change and biosphere integrity, via reversing land cover change from alien invasive plants and increasing areas under natural vegetation, with associated wider biodiversity benefits; and (iv) climate change, through increasing the resilience of landscapes and associated ecosystem services, especially water, to cascading impacts and feedbacks from climate change that cannot be mitigated.

The authors show that the results from this research can and should be implemented in practice, highlighting implementation examples such as:

  • new remote sensing methods for high-resolution mapping of invasive alien vegetation to radically improve existing maps
  • spatially disaggregated hydrological modelling, coupled with high-resolution vegetation information, to identify areas within catchments where restoration should be prioritised for offsetting anthropogenic climate impacts on water supply
  • financial modelling of investment cases for restoration, to promote private-public partnerships for long term catchment restoration and maintenance.

Future Impacts

NbS have been widely touted as key landscape-scale interventions to restore ecosystem function, enhance ecosystem services and to buffer society from climate change impacts. But the empirical evidence on the efficacy of NbS in a changing climate across contexts is lacking. This research, with several others from the research team, fills this gap, by quantifying the efficacy of catchment restoration in reducing water stress directly linked to human-caused climate change. It sets an example of what is possible with robust interdisciplinary research on NbS, specifically which more focused “NbS for water” project design should be possible, locations where NbS will be most effective, and where NbS would be less effective.

Using the prize

“I’m still figuring out how best to use the prize to deepen our research and scale its impact”, said New.

A few ideas we have are to build a regional observation and modelling platform to support planning and implementation of NbS in Southern Africa and to develop an NbS academy where policymakers, community organisations, landscape custodians and others can be trained in nature-based solutions, helping to grow local green economic development.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Research & innovation