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The IUCN World Conservation Congress that opens this week in Marseille is one of several critical global meetings scheduled for the coming months that could determine the fate of our planet. What connects them is our reliance on highly intact terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
Highly intact ecosystems support more biodiversity, absorb more carbon, help prevent pathogen spillover, and underpin food systems and livelihoods for indigenous peoples and local communities. The science is clear that if we continue to lose the integrity of natural ecosystems, we will lose the fight to save biodiversity, the fight against climate change, and the fight to prevent future global pandemics such as COVID-19.
If we continue to lose the integrity of natural ecosystems, we will lose the fight to save biodiversity, the fight against climate change, and the fight to prevent future global pandemics such as COVID-19.
Photo: F. Monteau/WCS
Globally over the past six months, there have been vigorous discussions on recovery from the current pandemic and the climate crisis. Yet far too little discussion has focused on perhaps the most critical tool we have: nature.
Nature and the services that healthy ecosystems provide are foundational to human survival. Just two examples: forests capture greenhouse gasses; wetlands protect our communities from flooding. Yet these underappreciated ecosystems are threatened regularly by traditional “built” infrastructure that includes roads, bridges, and power grids.
If countries across the globe are to truly secure our planet for generations to come, we must change our relationship with wildlife and other aspects of nature, cease the old ways of abusing our planet, and invest in building a carbon neutral and nature-positive future.
The Congress - together with the coming UN General Assembly meetings and high-level conferences on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland and biological diversity in Kunming, China - provides an opportunity to ramp up our joint efforts to combat the interconnected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pandemic spillover.
Let’s start with climate. When we speak of nature-based solutions, we are referring to a broad range of actions. Chief among them are stopping deforestation, avoiding forest degradation, science-based restoration efforts, and improving agricultural practices such that more and more carbon is sequestered in the land.
If nature-based solutions are the ‘forgotten solution’, then intact forests are the forgotten piece of that solution. Intact forests are those not (yet) significantly disturbed by industrial activities such as infrastructure development, logging, extractive industry, commercial wildlife exploitation, and large-scale commercial agriculture. A recent study showed that only 40% of all remaining forests have high ecosystem integrity.
Photo: Kyle de Nobrega
Estimates indicate that intact forests contain massive amounts of carbon, equivalent to about 11 years’ worth of human-related emissions. Every year these forests grow a little larger, together absorbing as much as a quarter of all human-related emissions and these carbon stores are more resilient to drought, fire, and other threats arising from a changing climate.
If we wish to reverse the current climate trajectory, we must maintain, protect, and restore (when possible) the remaining large intact forests as the foundation of any meaningful strategy.
As part of that strategy, it will be critical that Parties to the Paris Agreement submitting a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reduce carbon emissions by the year 2030 commit to conserving high integrity forests. At the same time, these commitments must be developed to ensure that they do not have unintended consequences for biodiversity.
Forests serve as the strongholds for two-thirds of all land-based plants and animals, provide vital water supplies and erosion control, and support the livelihoods of some 1.6 billion people.
We know that forests serve as the strongholds for two-thirds of all land-based plants and animals, provide vital water supplies and erosion control, and support the livelihoods of some 1.6 billion people, including in particular indigenous peoples and local communities.
By protecting intact forests, we not only help to keep carbon safely stored in trees and soil. We also maintain vital habitat for biodiversity at a time when the United Nations warns a million species face potential extinction. And we contain viruses to which humans have no natural immunity from spilling over to us, as happened with the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what can we do to show that we are ready to invest in new solutions? Here is where natural infrastructure can help us. At a time when the climate crisis is hammering shores across the planet with more - and more powerful - storms, coastal ecosystems such as wetlands and mangroves can protect against storm surges and rising sea levels.
As the climate crisis places ever greater pressure on our agricultural sector, the insect and bat species that pollinate 75% of the world’s food crops are as critical as the irrigation and farm-to-table infrastructure.
Several nature-based solutions are essential. First, we must expand and improve the extent and management of protected areas. Setting a target to protect and conserve at least 30% of land and sea areas is an ambitious and critical goal, which is also supported by dozens of governments.
We must secure and improve the ability of indigenous and local communities to manage the roughly 35% of the world’s intact forests they inhabit.
And it is essential that this 30% include not only officially designated “protected areas” but other effective area-based conservation measures, or OECMs, sustained so often by indigenous peoples. Relatedly, we must secure and improve the ability of indigenous and local communities to manage the roughly 35% of the world’s intact forests they inhabit, especially in the Amazon basin. Nature-based solutions and human wellbeing can and must be mutually reinforcing.
Photo: Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS
Finally, we must reduce the impacts of infrastructure on intact ecosystems and invest in the restoration of degraded ecosystems when possible.
All eyes are now on the IUCN Congress and other forthcoming key meetings, where governments, policymakers, leaders, donors and other stakeholders must show leadership and take ambitious and decisive actions to protect our planet. The current pandemic has shown us the devastating human loss that can result from the thoughtless degradation and over-exploitation of nature. The climate crisis threatens even further suffering. Our challenge is to build a carbon neutral and nature-positive future.