A blog by Rob Brooker, Head of Ecological Sciences at the James Hutton Institute, and is also a member of the British Ecological Society, including its Scottish Policy Group.
To mark the COP26 Presidency Theme ‘Science and Innovation’, Rob explores how science can help to deliver innovative solutions that will contribute to meeting the challenging climate change targets that will come out of COP26.
One of the COP26 Presidency Themes for Tuesday 9th November is Demonstrating that science and innovation can deliver climate solutions to meet, and accelerate, increased ambition. I read it several times before trying to write this blog. I’m still not completely clear what it means, but decided not to worry too much about the precise wording and to think instead about what I believe it’s trying to get at: can science help to deliver innovative solutions that will contribute to meeting the challenging climate change targets that will come out of COP26?
I can see that for some research fields – for example studies of fusion power – there may be sudden step changes in our knowledge and its application which generate a related step change in what’s possible in terms of climate change solutions. Looking at this from an ecologist’s perspective, although ongoing and planned research will deliver important new understanding about the links between climate change and nature, I don’t think we’re going to get a sudden shake up in our fundamental ecological knowledge. More radical innovation might come from what we do with that knowledge.
Importantly, COP26 coincides (roughly) with COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. COP15 is a key staging post for the CBD, coming at the end of the UN Decade on Biodiversity, and the point at which we must assess how we’ve done in terms of delivering the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Unfortunately, as set out in an excellent new briefing from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe), “All previous international targets for biodiversity have been missed and research shows that “urgent and transformative action” is required to halt the biodiversity crisis”.
One of the major challenges for delivering the Aichi targets, and for delivering many other nature conservation goals over the past decades, has been the perceived conflict between biodiversity conservation and the delivery of other policies, or the failure of other policy sectors (for example farming, energy generation, transport) to take biodiversity into account. The critical opportunity that the alignment of COP15 and COP26 brings is the chance to address the combined biodiversity and climate crises by making it clear that nature conservation can be (and must be) part of the solution to tackling the climate change crisis.
The case for this integrated approach is set out very clearly in a recent report by the British Ecological Society (BES) focussing on Nature Based Solutions for climate change in the UK. As the report says “Nature-based solutions (NbS) address societal problems in ways that benefit both people and Nature” and there are many ways (as set out in the report) in which conserving and appropriately managing nature can help deliver both mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation to the impacts of climate change which we are already experiencing.
But as the BES report also makes clear, there are a range of challenges. Amongst these are some clear scientific knowledge gaps – for example challenges in assessing carbon sequestration across multiple habitats – which, unless addressed, will hamper the uptake of nature-based solutions to climate change. We also have challenges in terms of integrating across policy sectors, although the coincidence of COP15 for biodiversity and COP26 for climate change presents an unparalleled opportunity for integrated action. Finally, we need to understand better how to work with private finance and business to generate some of the investment needed to deliver appropriate NbS in the right place and at the right scale.
Organisations such as Scottish Environment LINK – working in partnership with bodies such as the BES – have played a really important role in helping ecologists to better understand and work with policy makers. I think it’s fair to say, though, that big business might not be something many ecologists understand or have historically wanted to get involved with, not least because of substantial negative impacts of some business sectors on the environment, and concerns about greenwashing, including in current discussions about the use of NbS. But in the run up to COP15 some businesses are making clear their recognition of the need for significant change to help deliver a healthy planet. And rather than refuse to engage, I think it’s essential that scientists use the evidence we do have to explain why NbS are part of the solution – but not an alternative to emissions reductions – and why they need to be done in the right way and in the right place to achieve their full potential. It’s in this area of engaging with business where we’re going to need innovative thinking and action from scientists to realise the potential of these nature-based solutions to address the climate change and biodiversity crises.
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.