For the first time ever, the world’s governments have reached a global agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and keep the global average temperature rise below 2°C. Consensus at the UN climate summit in Paris (COP21) is to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
According to the agreement, each country will develop national strategies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and by 2050 there should be no carbon dioxide emissions. Nations will assess their own progress every second year, and every five years they will report to UN’s climate secretariat.
The climate promises made in Paris are much welcomed, but the critical next step is to ensure that the targets can be met. Much needs to be done, as the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions predicts a global warming of 3°C.
The process of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels must not threaten the health of ecosystems. Natural ecosystems can in fact be powerful allies in the fight against climate change, so reducing the degradation of natural ecosystems should be one of our key priorities.
Nature-based solutions include managing ecosystems so they can function most effectively, for example, absorbing excessive carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in biomass and soils. Terrestrial ecosystems store almost three times the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, while healthy oceans absorb over 25% of annual carbon dioxide emissions.
Degraded ecosystems have a reduced capacity to absorb and store carbon, and can become net carbon emitters. This highlights the importance of reducing deforestation, desertification, and the destruction of natural wetlands. Nature-based solutions can also offer protection against disasters; for example, planting trees on mountains can reduce the risk of landslides, rock falls and avalanches following an earthquake.
Blue Carbon refers to coastal vegetation and natural features such as sand dunes, boulders, mangroves, and sea grass beds. The natural coastal environment offers protection from storm surges, strong winds and tsunamis while supporting biodiversity by providing habitats for species. In addition to facilitating climate change adaptation and mitigation, nature-based solutions enhance human livelihoods by offering local employment and economic opportunities that are ultimately based on the natural environment.
When considering the services provided by ecosystems, it is clear that nature-based solutions are more cost-effective than man-made technical engineering solutions. Investing in the sustainable management of ecosystems today can pay off in the long-term through enhanced resilience to climate change, natural hazards and disasters such as droughts, famines and sea level rise.
The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is a practical tool for scientifically assessing the status of ecosystems. Red List of Ecosystems assessments have already identified climate change as a key threat to many ecosystems. In this rapidly changing world, reliable assessments of ecosystem status will raise awareness about threats to ecosystems and the resulting impacts on human well-being, as well as demonstrating how improved ecosystem management can reduce risks, enhance resilience, and promote adaptation.