The Manx shearwater is a beautiful and mysterious seabird. It feeds far from shore, only returning to its colonies at night – nesting in deep burrows, often at high altitude on inaccessible island mountainsides.
Because of this, shearwaters are notoriously difficult to study – but Scotland is home to around 40% of the entire world population. Yet over recent decades, at least ten Scottish shearwater breeding colonies have been lost. When rats or other predators are introduced, often unintentionally, by people onto islands, shearwater chicks are easy prey and breeding numbers fall.
Stories of human actions impacting wildlife and the climate are all too familiar. Climate change, however, brings new threats to species and habitats. Ongoing human pressures on biodiversity – like non-native mammal introductions on islands – are being compounded and intensified by the changing weather. In the marine environment, warming sea surface temperatures are driving profound changes in the biomass and species composition of plankton at the base of the food-web. Seabirds are top predators in that web, and the impacts are clear. The 2019 State of Nature report tells us that the average abundance of 12 breeding seabird species in Scotland declined by 38% between 1986 and 2019.
This is just one part of a much wider picture. Of all the Scottish species assessed in that report, 49% have declined in abundance, with one in nine at risk of national extinction. Across the world, species are being lost at a rate unprecedented in human history. Climate change is both a direct driver of this loss, but also a new context within which the other drivers – land-use change, pollution, over-exploitation, invasive species – operate and impact.
The global climate emergency and the ecological crisis are therefore deeply and inextricably linked together – and this simple truth must guide and frame our collective response. It means our approaches to the climate emergency must deliver both carbon answers and halt the biodiversity declines.
‘Nature-based Solutions’ to climate change is the term for this goal, now in common use around the world, and global thinking is developing on what sound principles for Nature-based Solutions are. They must be a vital part of the collective response but are not a substitute for rapid fossil fuel phase-out; they must protect and restore multiple ecosystems on land and sea; they must work with communities and build people’s capacity to adapt to climate change; and they must sustain or enhance biodiversity – which includes species that are not known to deliver direct carbon benefits.
2020 will be a pivotal moment in determining how we deliver those solutions – and two critical United Nations meetings are happening here in Scotland this year. In April, a major workshop in Edinburgh under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will feed into new global targets for nature; and the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow will determine the global response to the climate emergency.
Scotland has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the way in delivering Nature-based Solutions to the climate crisis. Managing carbon in soils is a central challenge, and peatland habitats are now recognised as among the most important global soil carbon assets. Stopping their degradation and restoring them to good ecological health delivers direct carbon benefits but also supports and builds resilience in the unique wildlife communities in these habitats. With a long track record of effective collaboration and delivery of peatland restoration, and the Scottish Government showing real commitment on future funding, Scotland is becoming a global exemplar on peatlands.
If we can extend Nature-based Solutions across our ecosystems, though, we can become genuine world leaders. To do this, tree planting targets must deliver carbon storage alongside native woodland regeneration and better connectivity for our reduced and fragmented Celtic rainforests and Caledonian pinewoods; agriculture must be strategically supported to deliver for threatened wildlife together with sustainable soil and carbon management; saltmarshes, kelp forests, and seagrass beds must be restored and protected; and we need an invasive species inspectorate to implement biosecurity and best practice – protect peatlands and build resilience in seabirds and other species, so they can meet the climate challenges ahead.
Our climate change response must have ecological roots, and we must remember that complicated problems very often have complex solutions. We are already seeing Nature-based Solutions being re-framed by some actors as ‘Natural Climate Solutions’, or other similar, vague phrasing. If this language drift signals a priority shift moving nature away from the core of our climate responses to the fringes, our opportunity to lead could be missed – and our legacy to future generations deeply compromised. Yet, the identification that the solution to our crisis is in the preservation of our nature and biodiversity mean that there is the possibility we may, given uncompromising stamina and determination, have reason to hope.
Dr Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species at RSPB Scotland, and LINK Trustee
A version of this blog was printed in The Scotsman on 13 March 2020.