Natural ecosystems are key to tackling climate change

By Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice.

Wherever we look, nature’s warning signs are flashing red. Under pressure from land use change, pollution and climate change, the natural systems that we depend upon for clean air, fresh water, food and a stable climate are under stress — or even on the verge of collapse.

Time to recognize the urgency of environmental crisis

Decades of warnings from scientists and environmental campaigners have gone unheeded. We have blithely ignored evidence of the growing pressures to which we are subjecting our planet’s vital ecosystems. It is time to recognise the urgency of the environmental crisis we are facing — and press our politicians for decisive action, at home and internationally, to forge a new deal for nature and people.

The latest assessment of the damage we are doing to the world’s biodiversity and nature comes from IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) in its Global Assessment Report 2019, the first since the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2005.

© WWF-UK

Its findings are stark. Climate change is a direct driver that is increasingly exacerbating the impact of other drivers on nature and human wellbeing. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and the fires, floods and droughts they can bring, have increased in the past 50 years. The global average sea level has risen by 16 to 21 centimeters since 1900, and at a rate of over 3 mm per year over the past two decades. These changes have contributed to widespread impacts in many aspects of biodiversity including species distributions, phenology, population dynamics, community structure and ecosystem function. According to observational evidence, the effects are accelerating in marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, and are already impacting agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, and nature’s contributions to people. Compounding effects of drivers such as climate change, land/sea-use change, overexploitation of resources, pollution and invasive alien species are likely to exacerbate negative impacts on nature, as has been seen in different ecosystems such as coral reefs, the arctic systems and savannas.

Rising temperatures are pushing natural systems to their limits, disrupting seasonal patterns and upsetting patterns of precipitation. Drought, wildfire and invasive pests threaten huge areas of forest. Ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of billions of tonnes of carbon emissions, imperils the plankton and coral reefs on which entire marine food webs rely.

Marine and terrestrial ecosystems are critical for climate resilience. They already absorb 50 per cent of the manmade CO2 emissions; and coastal wetlands and mangrove forests protect against floods and storm surges.

Current efforts are not enough

At present, commitments included now in the Paris climate agreement put us on course for a catastrophic 3°C of warming by the end of the century, which would be disastrous for species and ecosystems. We must rapidly decarbonise our energy, transport and industry; develop climate resilient and low greenhouse gas agricultural systems; and invest in ecosystem restoration across the globe.

In addition, policy and technological solutions which have become readily available, should be spread exponentially. For this to happen, radical collaboration between countries, companies and sub-national governments and rising citizens demand for scaled climate and nature action is needed.

A good portion of these solutions will come from transforming our energy and food production systems, while at the same time striving to protect and restore nature, ensuring we maintain its own resilience. Nature based solutions — such as storing carbon in the world’s forests, grasslands, wetlands and oceans — could deliver at least 30 per cent of the climate solutions needed by 2030.Protecting and restoring these vital ecosystems can also help protect vulnerable species and provide social benefits.

So the proposal by IPBES to compile the evidence on the interlinkages of biodiversity and climate change in a particular paper with the involvement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is very welcome.

Environmental protection must become a political priority globally

We must urgently prioritise our planet’s well-being. We need for the environment to be taken to a new level of political priority globally, for governments to agree globally and act locally on a set of reinforced rules and enforcement mechanisms to protect the environment and endangered species, while supporting vulnerable communities.

As Sir David Attenborough has said, what we do in the next few years will profoundly affect the next few thousand years.