Climate change and biodiversity loss represent interconnected “dual crises” for our planet, and for humanity. However, these are challenges that can be addressed, and the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, presents an opportunity to secure action for rapid carbon emissions reduction and for adapting and building resilience to climate impacts.
The Oct. 31-Nov. 12 summit, officially the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), will focus on four key goals:
- Securing global net zero carbon emissions by midcentury, which would keep within reach the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
- Adapting and building resilience to climate change by protecting communities and natural habitats.
- Mobilizing at least $100 billion in climate financing per year.
- Working together to accelerate action collaboration among governments, businesses, and civil society.
At COP26, countries must share plans for 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with the goal of net zero by 2050 and finalize measures to implement the Paris Agreement. This call for action is supported by recent scientific findings, led by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that warming beyond 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will probably be exceeded in the next 20 to 30 years. In addition, a new U.N. report finds that, according to current pledges for climate action, Earth is on course for a global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This data and analysis show that large-scale emission reductions and adaptation measures are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—such as water scarcity, drought intensity, and wildfires—that the IPCC authors say could affect more than 200 million people by 2050.
The IPCC assessment also affirmed the value of conservation and restoration of ecosystems—often referred to as nature-based solutions—as one of several strategies for reducing emissions.
One nature-based solution that many countries can pursue now is the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands. Those ecosystems can sequester and store significant amounts of CO2, often referred to as blue carbon because these benefits are originating in the marine environment. Through IPCC-approved methodologies, countries can quantify and include the carbon sequestered and stored by coastal wetlands in their emission-reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement; these commitments are known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Coastal wetlands also filter water, act as nursery grounds for a range of species, and absorb energy from storm surges, which helps to limit shoreline erosion.
Mobilizing finance is a key goal of COP26, and nature-based solutions carry financial benefits. For example, conserving and restoring mangroves globally could yield a return on investment of US$3.7 billion per year based on their carbon values alone.
A cost-benefit analysis completed in 2020 by more than 100 scientists estimated that achieving the goal of protecting at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030— known as the “30 by 30” target—could be achieved with an investment of only 0.16% of global gross domestic product annually.
Even better, that study found that implementing the target would generate an additional economic benefit of US$170 billion-$534 billion per year by 2050.
To help draw more attention to the role of nature-based solutions to climate change, the UNFCCC and the U.K. government will host an Ocean Day at COP26 on Nov. 5, followed by Nature Day on Nov. 6.
For our part, The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to build partnerships with countries to help them integrate coastal wetlands into their emission reduction commitments. Leading this charge are Seychelles, Belize, and Costa Rica, all of which have recently made major commitments to conserve, manage, and restore their coastal wetlands through their updated NDCs. Each NDC represents the pledges that a government is making to address climate change; because coastal wetlands sequester and store so much carbon, and convey myriad other benefits for adaptation and resilience, protecting them helps countries reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions.
Research increasingly supports the importance of conservation efforts in adapting and building resilience to the effects of climate change. For example, studies show that well-managed protected areas that are designed and implemented in full partnership with—and respect the rights of—Indigenous peoples and local communities can help people and wildlife adapt and build resilience to a warming world. This growing body of science is behind the 30 by 30 drive. More than 100 governments have voiced support for the goal, which would also greatly benefit biodiversity by stemming and reversing human-driven damage and loss to the natural world.
On land, Australia provides an example of what can be done. Carbon farming has the potential to benefit people and nature and can be augmented by programs that support ecotourism and the expansion of Indigenous ranger programs in the country. That’s why Pew, in partnership with pastoralists—land-holders who raise livestock—Aboriginal land managers, the broader community, and the Western Australian government, has advocated for allowing carbon farming on pastoral lease properties. These projects could absorb and store more than 5 million tons of carbon in the native vegetation and soil.
Nature-based solutions cannot solve the climate crisis alone. But they can—and should—be included in the actions that governments take to reduce emissions, conserve biodiversity, and provide socioeconomic value for communities. The effects of climate change and biodiversity loss are increasingly apparent to global society almost every day. COP26 is an opportunity for decision-makers around the world to show that they recognize the urgency of this moment and have the political will to commit to a stable and livable future for people and nature.
Tom Dillon is a senior vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading the organization’s work on conservation and environment initiatives in the United States and around the world.