Ecosystems can generate one-third of the climate mitigation expected by 2030, according to a recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with Oxford University. But how? Through “Nature-based solutions”, which rely on natural ecosystem functions and biodiversity, offering further proof that climate and biodiversity go hand in hand.
However, despite several events on biodiversity during COP25 in Madrid, in December 2019, “the subject remains in the background”, says Alexandra Deprez, a researcher at the Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI).
Biodiversity, a valuable source of solutions
The effectiveness of ecosystems in climate change mitigation is no new discovery. Oceans, forests and soil have been known for years to be natural carbon sinks. As Dorothée Herr, director of the IUCN Marine and Polar Program, reminds us, “30 million tons of CO2 are absorbed in the first hundred meters of sea and ocean surfaces, the equivalent of between one-quarter and one-third of emissions from human activities.”
In addition, coastal ecosystems like mangroves contribute to the climate change resilience of populations during extreme weather events. “Restoring the ecosystems we have degraded is beneficial for local communities, biodiversity, food security and adaptation to climate change,” she explains. Nature does not only offer solutions for the climate, it also provides ecosystem services that are vital for humanity: it is the prerequisite for our survival and development.
Positive but reversible climate impacts
The rapid decline of biodiversity caused by human activities affects its capacity to provide climate solutions. Ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation minimizes their potential for carbon uptake. “Ecosystems cannot continue to absorb large quantities of CO2 if we continue to move towards drier conditions,” explains geophysicist Sonia Seneviratne.
Ecosystem collapse even makes their mitigation effects reversible, which accelerates climate change: nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to deforestation. When trees are cut down, they no longer produce oxygen and release the carbon they stored. On the other hand, when they are truly protected, degraded ecosystems can be quickly replenished: the Belize Barrier Reef was removed from the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger on 26 June 2018 after the government implemented significant protective measures, including a moratorium on oil exploration.
Nature-based solutions: effective but underused tools
Several of the countries that signed the Paris Agreement, such as India, Argentina and Nigeria, are already implementing nature-based solutions through restoration and conservation projects and the sustainable management of ecosystems. However, few have set specific objectives or defined indicators for measuring the impacts. According to Sébastien Moncorps, Director of the French Committee of the IUCN, States must “integrate nature-based solutions with quantified targets: protected and restored surfaces, and amount of CO2 stored.”
According to the IUCN, only 20% of national contributions related to forests have established objectives. Among States with coastal ecosystems, less than one in five integrate them into their climate change mitigation measures and many marine areas listed as protected do not in fact enjoy any genuine protection. IUCN is therefore calling for the protection of 30% of land and sea areas by 2030. Only 15% of land area is currently protected, and 8% of marine surface, with divergent surveillance requirements and management policies.
Making biodiversity conservation a driving force for development
According to the French Facility for Global Environment, integrating local communities in the implementation of nature-based solutions and conservation activities is an effective way to combine conservation and development. This approach, in stark contrast to conservation practices based on law enforcement, is the first step towards the paradigm shift called for by John Goedschalk, Executive Director of Conservation international in Suriname: “In the current paradigm, resources are being destroyed for economic development. We need to switch paradigms. 30 hectares of a healthy intact forest are way more valuable than a few kilograms of gold.”