Countdown to COP26: Nature
It is not surprising that primary attention in the climate change debate has been on turning the energy supply away from fossil fuels and reducing overall demand; these are sensitive and potentially controversial topics that affect how people lead their lives. In reality, however, a multi-pronged approach is being used, and nature-based solutions are playing an increasing role.
Some of this work will be familiar: Take the example of the UK’s peatlands, which hold a lot of carbon – more than all the woodlands of Western Europe combined. Active peatlands sequester (bind) atmospheric carbon and store it as peat, which builds up because the waterlogged conditions prevent decomposition. Unfortunately, many peatlands were systematically drained after the Second World War to ‘improve’ the land, e.g. for grazing livestock or for timber production. The massive but obvious downside was that the drained peatlands stopped being sinks of carbon and instead started to ooze carbon as the peat dried and aerobic conditions led the peat to decompose. We now recognise that peatlands represent one of the most effective ways of locking in carbon, and work is therefore underway to reverse past damage, e.g. through programmes such as the Scottish Government’s Peatland Action project, which will be funding restoration projects worth a substantial £250 million over the next decade. This is a great example of how nature-based solutions can support in the fight against climate change.
Unfortunately, even if carbon emissions were to stop overnight, positive feedback loops, such as Siberia’s thawing permafrost that results in increased methane emissions, will continue. We therefore not only need to look at promoting carbon capture to reduce these impacts but also look at how we can adapt to the effects of climate change and increase resilience.
As with peatlands soaking up carbon, nature-based solutions have a vital role to play for our adaptation and resilience. A well-known effect of climate change is the increased frequency of extreme weather events. In June, parts of the UK saw a month’s worth of rainfall in one day, resulting in widespread flash flooding, and such events look set to become more common. However, land management may help alleviate some of the effects. When land within a catchment has been systematically drained or converted to other more impermeable land uses, its ability to attenuate the discharge of water is impaired, and flash flooding may be more likely to follow heavy rainfalls. In such areas, woodland creation may be part of the solution: Trees not only sequester carbon, they also slow down water runoff by adding structure to the vegetation and soil.
Trees also moderate arid climates and reduce the impacts of drought and water scarcity. Consider the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel. This project, which is led by the African Union, was initially conceived as a way to combat desertification by planting a wall of trees stretching across the entire Sahel. But it has since evolved into a programme to promote water harvesting techniques and greenery protection and improving indigenous land use techniques, aimed at creating a mosaic of green and productive landscapes across North Africa. A decade in, the scheme is roughly 15% underway and already bringing life (both nature and human related) back to Africa’s degraded landscapes at an unprecedented scale.
Nature-based solutions will help us adapt to the changing world. The more biodiverse the systems we manage, the greater their resilience and stabilising effects, and a coherent landscape-scale management strategy is therefore an effective way to maximise diversity both within and between ecosystems. For example, woodland creation should not be undertaken in peatland, as that would impair the function of the peatland as a wet carbon sink, but it will complement the benefits of peatland elsewhere in the landscape.
Promoting nature-based solutions can also support the fight to improve the status of global biodiversity in its own right. Only 23% of species and 16% of habitats in the European Union are currently considered to be in good health, and we have to accept that traditional conservation measures are often failing. Many ecosystems have become fragmented by human activities and now occur as small islands surrounded by seas of intense agriculture, urban areas, road infrastructure etc. Nature needs room for its inherent processes to function well; without these processes, ecological networks degrade and species are lost. By implementing nature-based solutions at the landscape scale to support the fight against climate change, large areas can also be allowed to ‘rewild’, to both restore biodiversity and to build resilience.
These are challenging times for sure, but they are interesting times as well! Positive initiatives are rapidly gaining traction, such as the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which has become instrumental in mainstreaming the issue of climate-related financial risks for companies and financial institutions, and now the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) which will do the same for biodiversity risks. As of August 2021, no fewer than 13,832 companies in 62 countries have signed up to the UN Global Compact. If the will is present, we may just be able to turn the tide.