Unprecedented changes in climate and biodiversity, driven by human activities, have combined to increasingly threaten nature, human lives and livelihoods around the world, a new report indicates.
The peer-reviewed workshop report is the product of a four-day virtual workshop between experts selected by a 12-person Scientific Steering Committee assembled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attended by this writer.
The report finds that previous policies have largely tackled biodiversity loss and climate change independently of each other, and that addressing the synergies between mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change, while considering their social impacts, could offer the opportunity to maximize benefits and meet global development goals.
"Human-caused climate change is increasingly threatening nature and its contributions to people, including its ability to help mitigate climate change. The warmer the world gets, the less food, drinking water and other key contributions nature can make to our lives, in many regions" said Prof Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the Scientific Steering Committee.
The authors also warn that narrowly-focused actions to combat climate change can directly and indirectly harm nature and vice-versa, but many measures exist that can make significant positive contributions in both areas.
"Changes in biodiversity, in turn, affect climate, especially through impacts on nitrogen, carbon and water cycles," he said.
The report highlights that reducing deforestation and forest degradation could contribute to lowering human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, by a wide range from 0.4-5.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
Stopping the loss and degradation of carbon- and species-rich ecosystems on land and in the ocean, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands and savannahs, coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, kelp forests and seagrass meadows could be a key step towards halting the hazards of climate change.
Increasing sustainable agricultural and forestry practices to improve the capacity to adapt to climate change, enhance biodiversity, the study says, could potentially increase carbon storage and reduce emissions.
It identifies measures such as diversification of planted crop and forest species, agroforestry and agroecology to actualise this.
“Improved management of cropland and grazing systems, such as soil conservation and the reduction of fertilizer use, is jointly estimated by the report to offer annual climate change mitigation potential of 3-6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide,” it shows.
The report stresses that while nature offers effective ways to help mitigate climate change, such solutions can only be effective if building on ambitious reductions in all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
"Land and ocean are already doing a lot - absorbing almost 50 percent of carbon dioxide from human emissions - but nature cannot do everything," notes Ana María Hernández Salgar, Chair of IPBES.
She adds that transformative change in all parts of society and economy is needed to stabilize global climate, stop biodiversity loss and chart a path to the sustainable future governments are pushing for.
“This will also require us to address both crises together, in complementary ways," she says.
On restoring carbon- and species-rich ecosystems, the authors point to evidence that restoration is among the cheapest and quickest nature-based climate mitigation measures to implement - offering much-needed habitat for plants and animals.
This, they believe, would enhance the resilience of biodiversity in the face of climate change, with many other benefits such as flood regulation, coastal protection, enhanced water quality, reduced soil erosion and ensuring pollination.
“Ecosystem restoration could also create jobs and income, especially when taking into consideration the needs and access rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” the survey states.
“An immediate shift from fossil fuel economy is required for the world to meet the 1.5 degrees target. Much of this action is required in the developed economies. Although the global share of emissions from Africa is still low at less five per cent, African countries must also invest in renewables and clean energy” Dr Philip Osano, Africa Center Director, Stockholm Environment Institute told Nation.Africa.
It also advocates for governments to start enhancing and better-targeting conservation actions, coordinated with and supported by strong climate adaptation and innovation.
Protected areas currently represent about 15 percent of land and 7.5 percent of the ocean but positive outcomes are expected from substantially increasing intact and effectively protected areas.
Global estimates of exact requirements for effectively protected and conserved areas to ensure a habitable climate, self-sustaining biodiversity and a good quality of life are not yet well established but range from 30 to 50 per cent of all ocean and land surface areas, the research reveals.
“Options to improve the positive impacts of protected areas include greater resourcing, better management and enforcement, and improved distribution with increased inter-connectivity between these areas.”
Conservation measures beyond protected areas are also spotlighted - including migration corridors and planning for shifting climates, as well as better integration of people with nature to assure equity of access and use of nature's contributions to people.
"The evidence is clear: a sustainable global future for people and nature is still achievable, but it requires transformative change with rapid and far-reaching actions of a type never before attempted, building on ambitious emissions reductions,” notes Prof Pörtner.
He adds that solving some of the strong and apparently unavoidable trade-offs between climate and biodiversity will entail a profound collective shift of individual and shared values concerning nature - such as moving away from the conception of economic progress based solely on GDP growth, to one that balances human development with multiple values of nature for a good quality of life, while not overshooting biophysical and social limits.
Eliminating subsidies that support local and national activities harmful to biodiversity - such as deforestation, over-fertilisation and over-fishing, could support climate change mitigation and adaptation, together with changing individual consumption patterns, reducing loss and waste, and shifting diets, especially in rich countries, toward more plant-based options.
Dr Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, said climate change and biodiversity loss are now threatening the very existence of humans, animals and plants, more than ever before.
“By focusing on synergies and trade-offs between biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation and adaptation, we need to advance the debate on how to maximize benefits to people and the planet,” he said.
Prof Pörtner highlighted that it may be impossible to achieve win-win synergies, or even manage the tradeoffs between climate and biodiversity actions in every single patch of a landscape or seascape, but “achieving sustainable outcomes becomes progressively easier when integrating a mix of actions at larger spatial scales.”
“Especially through cross-border collaboration and joint consultative spatial planning, which is why it is important to also address the lack of effective governance systems and mechanisms to improve integration between solutions for climate change and biodiversity."
Some focused climate mitigation and adaptation measures identified by the report as harmful to biodiversity and nature's contributions to people include planting bioenergy crops in monocultures over a very large share of land.
Such crops, the report points out, are detrimental to ecosystems when deployed at very large scales, reducing nature's contributions to people and impeding achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals.
“At small scales, alongside pronounced and rapid reductions in fossil-fuel emissions, dedicated bioenergy crops for electricity production or fuels may provide co-benefits for climate adaptation and biodiversity.”
Any measures that focus too narrowly on climate change mitigation, the survey expounds, should be evaluated in terms of their overall benefits and risks, such as some renewable energies generating surges of mining activity or consuming large amounts of land.
The same applies to some technical measures too narrowly focused on adaptation, such as building dams and sea walls.
“Although important options for mitigating and adapting to climate change exist, these can have large negative environmental and social impacts - such as interference with migratory species and habitat fragmentation.”
It says such impacts can be minimized by developing alternative batteries and long-lived products, efficient recycling systems for mineral resources, and approaches to mining that include strong considerations for environmental and social sustainability.
"This is an absolutely critical year for nature and climate," said Lord Zac Goldsmith, United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment.
"With the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, and the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in the UK, we have an opportunity and responsibility to put the world on a path to recovery,” he said.
Sveinung Rotevatn, Norwegian Minister for Climate and Environment says that policies, efforts and actions to solve the global biodiversity and climate crises will only succeed if they are based on the best knowledge and evidence.
Economics of biodiversity
“It is clear that we cannot solve these threats in isolation - we either solve both or we solve neither," he observed.
A separate study British commissioned report on the economics of biodiversity calls on world governments to enact policies advocating for a drift from massive assault on nature to a more humane treatment of the environment.
The report, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, notes that humans, together with the livestock they rear for food, constitute 96 per cent of the mass of all mammals on the planet but a continuous ruthless onslaught on the life of other animals and plants is endangering the life of all living things.
“We are destroying biodiversity, the very characteristic that until recently enabled the natural world to flourish so abundantly. If we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse. That is now a real risk,” the survey commissioned by the United Kingdom Treasury in March 2019 says.
Emphasising that "the economics of biodiversity is the economics of the entire biosphere," Prof Partha Dasgupta who led the research asked nations to keep in mind that they are embedded in nature.
He said the report was prompted by a growing body of evidence that in recent decades humanity had been degrading the planet's most precious asset, nature, at rates far greater than ever seen before.
“In the process of getting to where we are, though, we have degraded the biosphere to the point where the demands we make of its goods and services far exceed its ability to meet them on a sustainable basis,” he stated.