Meeting 1.5C: Don’t forget the critical role nature has to play

Zoë Quiroz Cullen, Director, Climate & Nature Linkages, Fauna & Flora International, outlines the relationship between nature and efforts to reach net-zero, and how crucial conversations at COP27 could shape action moving forward.

Meeting 1.5C: Don’t forget the critical role nature has to play

When COP26 concluded last November, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) saw reasons to be positive about the progress made; the importance of nature in the fight against climate change was finally rising on the global agenda. We saw international commitments to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 and, crucially, the COP26 final decision text emphasises “the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal”, which aims to limit global warming to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

As nations now prepare to join the talks at COP27 in Egypt this November, it’s critical that this commitment to nature and biodiversity, and its role in the climate fight, continues – and that it is enabled by action at all levels. In order to achieve the 1.5C goal, emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and, ultimately, the world needs to reach net zero by 2050. And, while these targets are necessary, it is deeply concerning that current pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as shown in the latest UNEP Emissions Gap Report, do not even come close to keeping the 1.5C goal within sight.

When leaders come together at COP27 to address this perilous gap between the science and commitments to action, for FFI, one thing is clear: there is no path to net-zero without ambitious action to protect, sustainably manage and restore nature. If we don’t prioritise the protection of nature, we will not only lose significant capacity for carbon capture (by natural carbon sinks, such as forests), but we risk eroding the resilience of natural ecosystems and our capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already very real. Scientific evidence also points to the significant risk of catalysing the release of catastrophic volumes of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, if irreversible ecosystem ‘tipping points’ are reached.

In terms of the climate power of nature, the role of marine and coastal ecosystems – stores of ‘blue carbon’ – have a critical role to play alongside their terrestrial counterparts, such as forest and peatland systems. Take seagrass, for example. These exceptional aquatic plants anchor themselves to the seabed by their roots and, over time, form extensive meadows. Seagrass occurs in shallow coastal waters throughout much of the world, with the exception of Antarctica, and the most up-to-date global seagrass area is estimated at 160,000 km2. Although its importance flies largely under the radar, seagrass is actually a significant carbon sink, able to store carbon much more efficiently than trees.

Seagrass meadows hold carbon mainly in sediments secured by the plants’ roots and, if undisturbed, they can remain intact for millennia. A seagrass meadow in Spain’s Portlligat Bay, for example, has accumulated carbon-rich deposits up to 10 metres deep and more than 6,000 years old. With the potential for seagrasses to capture up to 8kg of carbon and produce up to 10 litres of oxygen per square metre per day, this meadow alone is playing a significant role in balancing the climate.

But seagrass and its immense carbon sequestration and storage capabilities are under threat. Seagrass meadows are being neglected and degraded by human activities and, in many areas, they are depleting at an alarming rate. Around the UK, an estimated 90% of seagrass has been lost already.

The impact of this? Not only are we losing a significant natural carbon sink, but, as seagrass meadows are degraded or destroyed, carbon is being released back into the ocean and the atmosphere. At the same time, communities and economies are directly impacted, for example by the loss of fish breeding and nursery grounds that underpin local food security and commercial fisheries.

Seagrasses are, of course, not the only blue carbon stores that are under threat. A future, and potentially catastrophic, threat to carbon accumulated in ocean sediments is the proposed move towards deep seabed mining; a burgeoning area of conflict in the net-zero journey. The shift towards electric cars and other supposedly ‘green’ technologies designed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is increasing the demand for metals and minerals that are critical for decarbonisation technologies. Many nations are, as a result, pushing to start plundering the mineral reserves found in the deep seabed – perversely risking significant, new greenhouse emissions, alongside other negative impacts.

As highlighted in FFI’s landmark Assessment Report, deep seabed mining comes with a series of potentially catastrophic risks. From disruption of the ocean’s life-support systems and the destruction of unstudied ecosystems, to unpredictable levels of carbon and methane release, the consequences of deep seabed mining could be disastrous – not just for nature, but for rising global temperatures too.

Like all areas of science, the pathway to net zero is not clear cut and tough decisions will, of course, have to be made. But, as the world develops its strategies towards a zero-carbon future, we must ensure that nature is at the heart of those decisions. At COP27 this November, we are calling for the robust integration of nature-positive policies and practices into all decarbonisation efforts, to avoid falling into the trap of false solutions – including deep seabed mining – in the transition to net zero.

We must also ensure that the critical role of indigenous peoples and local communities on the frontline of nature-based climate action – often those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – is recognised, enabled and equitably resourced. There are vital win-wins for people from protecting and restoring blue carbon systems. Mangrove trees – another legion of blue carbon heroes – not only support climate change mitigation efforts by sequestering and storing carbon, but also form a crucial two-way natural barrier between the ocean and coastal settlements due to their ability to grow in the brackish waters between land and sea – thus playing an important role in climate adaptation too. The trees slow coastal erosion and collect ocean-bound river sediment and, when floods, storms and tidal waves hit, they provide an important protection barrier that is far more beneficial and cost-effective than engineered solutions.

At FFI, we are working with our in-country partners around the world to protect seagrass, mangroves and other critical carbon stores. While out of sight, blue carbon ecosystems should definitely not be out of mind in the context of climate negotiations.

The more nature is degraded, the more we erode its capacity to help us in the fight towards net-zero.

We are therefore calling for a ‘protection first’ approach to nature-based responses to climate change, to prevent further loss of carbon-rich, biodiverse ecosystems, which simply cannot be replaced by a focus on re-planting. Once lost, these natural carbon sinks and stores – both marine and terrestrial – that underpin climate regulation can never be brought back. We must prioritise their protection – before it’s too late – and we urge this message to remain at the forefront of the climate negotiations in November.

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