Biodiversity loss and climate change are two sides of the same coin
As the world sizes up the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, new approaches are emerging that are set to address both
Humanity now faces the double crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss. As the world warms, millions of people are subject to extreme heatwaves, and perhaps a billion could be affected by rising sea-levels within decades. Rising temperatures also threaten to ravage a natural world already reeling from habitat loss and over-exploitation. Around a million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction — more than ever before in human history.
Traditionally, efforts to confront these problems have addressed them as separate and distinct: new sources of clean energy, for example, or greater protection of remaining wilderness areas. But a new type of response is emerging, one that seeks investment to tackle them together.
Sometimes called nature-based solutions, or natural climate solutions, such strategies aim to jointly address the climate and biodiversity crises by assessing the effects that policies applied in one area are likely to have in the other. Ideally, when actions are proposed with a view to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as safeguarding natural ecosystems, outcomes are positive in both realms. They are win-win solutions that involve protecting, restoring and sustainably managing ecosystems in order, ultimately, to address society's challenges and promote human wellbeing. What is more, projects on the ground often offer opportunities to involve local and indigenous communities.
One planet, two aims
“Conserving nature and adapting to climate change are two sides of the same coin,” says Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “Ecosystem-based adaptation is a powerful strategy that recognises the interconnectedness of the nature and climate agendas.”
It could be a very effective approach. Scientists have calculated that investing in nature-based solutions could provide 37 per cent of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation required by 2030 to stay below 2C of warming. These include options to increase carbon sequestration, and to reduce emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases through conservation, restoration and improved management practices in forest, wetland and grassland biomes.
Take forests, which store vast amounts of carbon. There is more carbon in forest ecosystems — in the living and dead biomass of trees and in soils — than in all known oil and coal reserves. Preventing carbon emissions from degradation and deforestation is therefore as necessary for mitigating climate change as reducing fossil fuel emissions.
Forests are also home to 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and offer many benefits, including their clean air and water, as well as protection against erosion and landslides. In addition to safeguarding existing carbon stores, forests help to regulate our climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere. So, investing to protect forests helps address both climate change and biodiversity loss — a true nature-based solution.
Ground work: why we need regenerative agriculture
There are thousands of initiatives in other areas, taking place on a variety of scales. A popular area of change is food production, which accounts for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, is a leading cause of soil and species loss, and uses more water than any other sector. The company Unilever has introduced what it calls regenerative agriculture principles, which aim to nourish soil and increase farm biodiversity, as well as capturing carbon to restore and regenerate land.
One key focus of this approach is to protect and restore soils, which together hold around twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. Soil is slow to renew; it can take between 100 and 400 years to generate one centimetre of fresh and healthy earth. Active soil management — as championed by the 4 Per 1000 initiative to increase carbon stock in soil globally, launched at COP21 in 2015 — can help to improve productivity and food security, and reduce levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Farming methods that safeguard soil health include keeping living roots in the ground, applying tillage practices that minimise disturbance to the soil surface, and preventing erosion through cover cropping. “We need to work with nature and ecosystems, not against them,” says Hanneke Faber, President of Unilever’s Foods and Refreshment division.
Regreening the planet through conservation, restoration and improved land management, scientists say, is a necessary step for our transition towards both a carbon-neutral global economy and a stable climate. As Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), puts it: “A large part of the heavy lifting needed to stabilise the planet and human civilisation can be undertaken by nature, alongside radical decarbonisation. There has never been greater political and private sector momentum to invest in nature-based solutions.”