Nurturing nature can raise ambition to address planetary emergency
By Manuel Pulgar-Vidal,
Leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice
Our planet faces a growing climate emergency. Only a dramatic increase in the ambition of our collective response can avert that crisis. But without placing nature at the centre of that response – recognising the interrelationships between nature loss and climate change, as well as the potential of nature to play a fundamental role in mitigating global warming and adapting to it– an ambitious collective response will not be possible.
It is a recognition of these interrelationships that is at the heart of WWF’s proposed New Deal for Nature and People. The New Deal seeks to protect and restore nature for the benefit of people and the planet – ensuring we can provide food, water and quality of life for a global population of nine billion, with a stable climate and while preventing a mass extinction of wildlife.
We believe that the New Deal can be a lever to increase the ambition of the world’s climate and nature targets – and can help to ensure that these ambitions are realised.
There is no shortage of evidence of the impacts of the climate crisis on our natural systems, as well as the consequences of nature loss for climate. The landmark global assessment report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, released earlier this year, cited climate change as one of the top-three drivers of biodiversity loss that is threatening a quarter of the world’s species with extinction.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on oceans and the cryosphere showed how rising temperatures and acidification threaten marine ecosystems, with coral reefs – home to 25% of marine life – facing complete destruction by the end of century if the world warms by more than 2°C. Increased sea temperatures will also influence and change biodiversity, affecting those who depend on fisheries.
That report followed the IPCC’s 1.5°C study, which catalogued differing impacts on biodiversity at 1.5°C and 2°C of warming; while the latter is more catastrophic than the former, even holding the global temperature rise to the bottom of the likely range promises profound effects on nature from pole to pole.
Nature also has a vital role to play in mitigating climate change. Around a third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 can be delivered by the land-use sector. Protecting and restoring forests, wetlands and seagrass beds, or managing cropland to store more carbon in the soil, can potentially capture billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Healthy natural ecosystems will also be fundamental to efforts to adapt to a changing climate. Whether it is forests helping to manage run-off from increased precipitation, mangroves protecting from storm surges, or the application of agroforestry techniques to help crops better deal with drought, nature-based solutions can support human adaptation to a warmer world.
In addition, a failure to address nature loss risks jeopardising the attainment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While two of the SDGS – life below water and life on land – speak directly to protecting and conserving nature, achieving many other development goals will simply be impossible without healthy ecosystems.
So how can we marry climate ambition and the protection of nature, and put one to work in the service of the other?
Fundamentally, we need a new social contract, both at the international and domestic levels, to address nature loss in a more ambitious way than we have been doing thus far. Within the international context, next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity presents one such opportunity -- but a strong post-2020 deal for nature at the CBD is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
In addition, governments have an opportunity to be more ambitious and better address nature in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that they should be updating as part of the revision process built into the Paris agreement. Many current NDCs already recognise the emissions reduction or adaptation potential of the better management of natural resources, providing a sound platform for improvement.
These revised NDCs could promote mainstreaming and the better integration of nature into national decision making. Too often, domestic laws and regulations are introduced without regard to their impacts on nature, ecosystems and the biodiversity they support.
Better connecting nature with the economy will help to illuminate the value of the former to the latter. The services provided by nature are estimated in our Living Planet report to be worth US$125 trillion each year – an unimaginable contribution that simply could not be replicated. Meanwhile, WWF’s Nature of Risks Report states that nature-related risks are not being adequately addressed by business and that they need to be factored together with climate-related exposures, as they are inextricably interlinked.
Here, there is a need for a Global Commission on Nature and the Economy, mirroring the work carried out by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – also known as the New Climate Economy – that sets out the economic case for cleaner, climate-smart growth. This Commission would assess how countries and the business sector can achieve economic growth whilst dealing with the risks of accelerated nature loss.
Similarly, corporations could learn from the climate action agenda, adapting the lessons they have gleaned developing science-based emissions targets. These goals help companies align their business strategies with what climate scientists say is needed to protect the climate; these techniques could be applied to the prevention of nature loss.
There is clearly a growing groundswell of concern around the world about climate change, particularly – but not exclusively – among young people. This concern is increasingly extended to nature loss, as part of the planetary emergency we face. A New Deal for Nature and People provides an opportunity to channel and amplify this concern into a wider agenda that recognises that nature must be at the heart of the climate agenda, and vice versa.