Ecosystems take root in the climate change fight

Banyan tree with extensive roots
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A banyan tree

"This whole ecosystem services thing was big in the 1990s, but then it seemed to fade away," said Roshan Cooke, a climate and environment specialist with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, as he grabbed a quick vegetarian bite between sessions at the Adaptation Futures conference  in Rotterdam.

"Now, It seems to be back  and in a big way."

Does it ever!

In just three days here, roughly 40 presentations focused on the subject of "ecosystems and ecosystem based-adaptation," and they focused on everything from the restoration of salt marshes that protect coastal communities from rising tides to the protection of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which supports a massive agricultural economy.

The event comes just two weeks after Earth Day, when 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement to combat climate change   in part by "ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth."

The agreement both sets and reflects an agenda taking place round the world, as issues long popular among theorists gain traction among practitioners   some of whom point to Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, the forest clause, which states, "Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases," as significant language regarding ecosystems.

"It’s recognition of conservation’s value in fighting climate change," said Shyla Raghav, director of climate change policy at Conservation International (CI). "I think having such a repeated mention of ecosystems is a testament to the fact that nature was really at the front of minds at Paris."

Josefina Brana-Varela, senior director of WWF’s Forest and Climate team, agreed, saying the global pact clearly states climate actions must be done in a way that ensures the integrity of all ecosystems, and the agreement’s mention of the importance of non-carbon benefits is further evidence.

And after considering the many agendas trying to squeeze their way into the document, Brana-Varela said the text’s inclusion of ecosystems was an indication of their importance. "It sends the right message," she said of the agreement, saying it provides the right amount of promotion and recognition to allow for a scaling up of ecosystems’ role in the fight against climate change.

The best of both worlds with ecosystems

The discussion over ecosystems, often in conjunction with consideration of indigenous tribes and human rights issues, is long and stretches back to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change’s formation. But it was something of a latecomer to the talks in Paris. This made groups focused on the issue, such as the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group, nervous when negotiators released drafts of the text and there was little inclusion on this topic, although they were satisfied with the final results.

Groups largely were concerned because ecosystems are a fundamental part of both facets of fighting climate change, mitigation and adaptation, and require proper representation in a global agreement, Raghav said. The aforementioned reference to enhancing sinks and reservoirs is clear recognition that many intact ecosystems, such as wetlands, mangroves and tropical forests, store carbon and therefore act as a mitigation tool.

Ecosystem-based adaptation, on the other hand, focuses on restoring ecosystems and sustainably managing them to help reduce climate vulnerability within communities and is increasingly an approach countries and decision-makers consider when faced with a changing climate, Raghav explained.

The adaptation factor

CI is working heavily in the adaptation space in places such as the Philippines, where the organization is working to conserve and restore mangrove trees that absorb the fierce winds of typhoons and other tropical storms that are only expected to increase as climate change worsens and wreak havoc on coastal communities.

In South Africa, ecosystem-based adaptation takes the form of rehabilitating wetlands and improving rangeland management to prepare for more varied rainfall and a rise in aridity.

Both adaptation and mitigation have a human aspect as people are vulnerable to climate impacts. They’re two sides of the same coin, Brana-Varela said, and both require short and long term changes in human activity and planning. The Paris Agreement’s adaptation article notes protecting people and livelihoods alongside protecting ecosystems.

Raghav sees a problem with portraying ecosystems only in this vulnerability context within the adaptation section. Sentences such as "adaptation … is a key component of and makes a contribution to the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems" isn’t portraying nature as a solution to climate challenges.

Although she is pleased with ecosystem’s many mentions, Raghav said the article could use some adjusting. "I think a little fine-tuning to make clear how we’re envisioning ecosystems contributing to adaptation would strengthen this dimension," she said.

Lisa Schindler Murray, policy advisor at the Nature Conservancy, said she would have liked for the ecosystem text in the preamble to be more solutions-oriented as well. The co-benefits of ecosystems and their ability to build coastal resilience help solve climate-related problems, she said.

Nevertheless, they are pleased with the finished product.

"Could we have done better? Yes, in an ideal world, but I think it’s a good outcome when you put things in perspective," Brana-Varela said.

Raghav said the language around adaptation certainly didn’t close any doors; it just didn’t allude to the ecosystem-based approach as she would have liked.

Joining forces

Perhaps most important, the Paris Agreement enables the sustainable use of natural resources to sit more prominently in such climate strategies as National Adaptation Plans and Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The Philippines, for instance, has locked ecosystem-based adaptation into its climate strategies, and a WWF study published in December found some form of ecosystem integrity in most forested countries’ INDCs.

It also helps solidify a connection with the Sustainable Development Goals. Aside from obvious linkages with Goal 13, which calls for urgent action to combat climate change, many other objectives are deeply intertwined with ecosystem conservation. Goal 15, for instance, calls for sustainable management of forests and halting biodiversity loss and Goal 6 seeks to ensure sustainable water management, and protect freshwater ecosystems.

But the lack of coordination and synergies that exists today between climate and development is resulting in missed opportunities to raise the environment and ecosystem profile politically, and increase policy support for change, said Brana-Varela. She said recognizing ecosystems in the Paris Agreement, a high level global pact, can help the climate and development spheres work together to advance this agenda.

For forested countries, ecosystem integrity also can find a home in the national strategies to reduce deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), Brana-Varela said.

The REDD+ safeguards, which countries must undertake when they engage in REDD+ programs, implies the conservation of natural ecosystems, when implementing actions to reduce deforestation and degradation but also when promoting conservation and enhancement of carbon stocks and the sustainable management of forests.

In it for the long haul

These strategies and actions plans are thinking long-term, and Brana-Varela said ecosystems must be a central part of long-term thinking on climate change.

"We will need ecosystems to function as natural sinks and as buffers to ease the impact of extreme climate events, and in order to guarantee climate stability," she explained. Brana-Varela thinks decision-makers should keep focusing on the urgency of the energy sector transformation, but should also take action to preserve natural ecosystems. She said that if the new climate regime is to be truly effective, it should be thinking down the road, into the middle of the century when emissions are peaking.

"We will need to take action in the land sector for both mitigation and adaptation, and we can’t do that without natural and healthy ecosystems," Brana-Varela said.

Raghav sees the greatest long-term potential in the NAPs, which are built to last. These plans are looking anywhere from 10 to 50 years into the future, and they’re determining what programs receive funding and are prioritized for investments. And ecosystems need to be a crucial part of this, Raghav said.

"There is a consideration for ecosystems and ecosystem services in these plans that allow for more holistic and integrated approaches to adaptation," she said.

But of course, the Paris Agreement and this entire discussion are only as useful as what nations choose to do next. Brana-Varela said, "What actually matters is how the provisions included in the Paris Agreement are translated into actual action on the ground."

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