A blog by Deborah Long, LINK’S Chief Officer.
To mark the COP26 Presidency Theme ‘Nature’, Deborah highlights the role of nature based solutions in tackling climate change.
Carbon in the atmosphere (parts per million)
David Attenborough’s Witness Statement 2020.
Climate warming and biodiversity loss are gathering speed and impacting increasingly large areas of the world. While tackling climate emissions is crucial, doing this in isolation from action to halt the loss of biodiversity, to reconnect nature and restore damaged ecosystems is pointless. Addressing these issues together requires new approaches and the involvement of us all. We are going to need to adjust how we live, what our aspirations are if we are to avoid an increasingly unstable environment that is unable to support us. We need a new approach.
The recent Scottish government commitment to nature targets is extremely welcome. Targets will help drive action on nature loss now as well as on climate emissions. Once we know our target, it’s easier to map the direction towards it.
IPCC and IPBES (Joint workshop report June 2021) describe the future we want as a habitable climate, self-sustaining biodiversity and good quality of life for all. The question is, how do we get there, quickly?
Given the pressures of shrinking habitats, species loss, pollution, climate warming and over exploitation, the need for enhanced and well targeted conservation effort has never been more important. What’s more, the risk of loss though inaction or inattention is greater than ever before.
Part of our journey involves ‘nature based solutions’. As long as local and national communities work together, nature based solutions can produce local as well as global benefits, and avoid tipping points and negative feedback loops. Guarding against the co-option of nature based solutions as offsetting schemes, for example, is also required.
Nature based solutions can reduce the impact of climate change by making ecosystem more resilient to external changes. Higher genetic, species and ecosystem diversity makes ecosystems more resilient and able to maintain ecosystem services longer into the future.
Protected areas are one such solution: today, these represent the reserves of biodiversity we have left. But protecting a static and unconnected reserve, in the middle of a changing landscape, is no longer sufficient. Protected areas today need to function as part of the wider landscape and be part of the way we manage the surrounding land to build wider resilience. The area of intact and effectively protected areas on land and at sea is too small to meet the three objectives of the new future.
Nature networks, another nature based solution, are key to this by offering ecosystem resilience to change: linking together protected areas, providing routes though a landscape for species, including plants, fungi, insects, birds and mammals so they can move as conditions change.
Restoration is of course, another key nature based solution. Halting the loss and degradation of high carbon habitats including forests, peatlands, salt marshes and kelp forests all maintain biodiversity, and limit carbon loss. Halting the loss and restoring the extent of these habitats is a win win – it saves money, retains ecosystem services and is the start of networks that build future ecological resilience.
Investing in sustainable agricultural practices is another win win: supporting all farmers across Scotland to build carbon holding soil and habitats, build biodiversity levels to retain ecosystem services including pollination and flood management brings benefits of more stable and productive farmland to the farmer, benefits of stable landscapes to the local communities and benefits of locally produced, sustainable food to wider society.
These win wins are not just for Scotland’s rural communities. In our urban areas, greening initiatives including green roofs, urban trees, biodiversity rich parks and urban gardens reduce summer heat, break up winter wind and storms, provide pollinators to increase urban food productivity and provides an environment that supports better mental and physical health.
However, nature based solutions do not always provide a win win. Action on climate and biodiversity has impacts on nature, climate and communities: ignoring any of these impacts can create unintended consequences that may be difficult to resolve given the lower resilience levels we are now facing in an unstable natural world.
What this means is that tipping points can be easily reached, with extreme consequences for people, biodiversity and climate. For example, tree planting with species that sequester carbon with no regard for species diversity or habitat stability can increase the likelihood of soil loss or flooding. Conversely the rapid spread of changed behaviours and social norms can lead to positive tipping points. Examples include urban gardens, community owned renewable energy generation and local community involvement in creating and implementing plans that build local biodiversity. Engaging more people, with wider skills sets and perspectives holds the potential to build towards transformative change anyway.
Transformative change also needs levers that have the power to alter future trajectories: these include alternative visions of what a good quality of life is, rethinking what we consume and what we waste, rebuilding our relationship with nature, reducing inequalities and access to the fundamentals of life in terms of a healthy environment and productive work.
The demand for transformation at scale and at speed has never been higher. Nature based solutions, where used well, can help put society on a pathway to positive vision of good quality of life for all in harmony with nature: a future we want and need.
This blog is originally from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s magazine ‘The Geographer‘.
This blog is part of the LINK Thinks CoP26 series. Click here to read the series of blogs by LINK staff, members, Honorary Fellows and invited guests who highlight the COP26 presidency programme with a nature-climate twist.