Nature’s Key Role in Addressing the Climate Crisis
By Brian O’Donnell, Campaign for Nature
In June of this year, world-leading climate and biodiversity scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an incredibly important report following the first-ever collaboration between these two intergovernmental bodies. Their main recommendation was clear: we cannot solve the climate or biodiversity crises in isolation.
Nature plays a critical, and all too often underappreciated, role in regulating the world’s climate. Recent reports estimate that Nature-based solutions (NbS) could provide about one-third of the greenhouse gas mitigation needed to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement between now and 2030.
Certain “carbon dense” areas and ecosystems are of special importance in prioritizing locations for Nature-based solutions to climate change. Most discussions about the intersection of climate and nature focus on protecting forests, and with good reason. As the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, forests are a stabilizing force for the climate: “Forests’ role in climate change is two-fold. They act as both a cause and a solution for greenhouse gas emissions. Around 25% of global emissions come from the land sector, the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the energy sector. About half of these (5-10 GtCO2e annually) comes from deforestation and forest degradation. Forests are also one of the most important solutions to addressing the effects of climate change. Approximately 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide…is absorbed by forests every year.”
In its Nexus Report, F20, Campaign for Nature and the SEE Foundation recommend a focus on “primary forests” which not only are critical for climate, but are massively important for safeguarding biodiversity. Despite their critical role in climate solutions, forests are under immense pressure. Deforestation in Brazil, home to much of the Amazon rainforest, has reached its highest level in a decade. If current deforestation rates continue, scientists predict a “tipping point” for the Amazon within the next decade. This would lead to catastrophic consequences for biodiversity and the world’s climate.
Global leaders must also prioritize “blue carbon” ecosystems. These include kelp forests, salt marshes and mangroves. The World Resources Institute notes that these areas “are 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon dioxide on a per area basis per year than boreal, temperate or tropical forests, and about twice as effective at storing carbon in their soil and biomass.”
Recent research led by Enric Sala from National Geographic Society, who works in partnership with Campaign for Nature, found that the ocean floor is also a massive carbon sink that is vulnerable to bottom trawling.
The first step in NbS must be halting the destruction of carbon-dense ecosystems. Campaign for Nature is leading an effort to increase ambitions for the protection and conservation of nature as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will also have major climate benefits. Leading scientists have determined we need 30% of Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as climate stabilization areas, by 2030, to stay below 1.5°C. A 2020 UN report confirmed the synergies between nature and climate, estimating that protecting 30% of land could safeguard more than 500 gigatons of carbon while reducing extinction risks of 88% of the species considered in the study. And restoring 15% of degraded lands in priority areas could capture 30% of the total CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
This month, a new study carried out by the Nature Map Consortium, shows that managing a strategically placed 30% of land for conservation could safeguard 70% of all considered terrestrial plant and vertebrate animal species, while simultaneously conserving more than 62% of the world’s above and below ground vulnerable carbon.
The “30×30” target along with targets to restore land and retain intact ecosystems has been included in the First Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will hopefully be adopted at CBD COP15 in Kunming. Many countries, including the UK and Canada, are also working to see this target better integrated into upcoming climate and finance discussions. COP26 provides a key opportunity to focus on nature.
Indigenous peoples and local communities are essential leaders in the global efforts to address climate change and halt biodiversity loss. But, their land rights must be recognized and secured, and their leadership given the respect and funding that it deserves. As Rights and Resources Initiative highlights, “recognizing community land rights leads to lower deforestation rates, higher carbon storage, and higher biodiversity. This includes tracking the amount of carbon stored in Indigenous and community lands. Communities manage nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon, including 22 percent of tropical and sub-tropical forest carbon. Ensuring that their rights to these lands are recognized and protected is vital to keeping the forests standing and the carbon from being released into the atmosphere, which would hasten the climate crisis. Recognizing rights is also critical for meeting targets to restore damaged lands.” Currently, funding to Indigenous peoples and local communities is woefully inadequate, totaling less than 1 percent of ODA for climate mitigation and adaptation.
Protecting nature is critical, but not nearly sufficient to address climate, and cannot be an excuse to delay or avoid urgently needed major cuts in emissions. As Ana María Hernández Salgar, Chair of IPBES, recently said, “Land and ocean are already doing a lot – absorbing almost 50% of CO2 from human emissions – but nature cannot do everything.” And, NbS is not without legitimate controversy. If not implemented well, NbS can violate human rights, be used for “greenwashing” or as excuses to avoid emissions reductions. Offset schemes, while a potential major source of funding for NbS, can exacerbate these concerns, and should be very carefully crafted and used in addition to, not as a substitute for, emissions reductions. Global standards have been developed by IUCN for NbS best practices.
To help finance NbS, some countries and development banks have begun allocating a portion of their climate finance to nature. France has committed 30% of its climate finance to NbS.
Safeguarding nature has the opportunity to have huge positive impacts for climate, biodiversity and human rights. Alignment of these goals and the recommendations found in the Nexus Report should guide global leaders in the upcoming global negotiations.
Anna Keremen, Communications F20 | firstname.lastname@example.org