The role of nature to mitigate the impacts of a warming climate—and help wildlife, ecosystems, and people adapt and build resilience to those changes—was a core topic of attention at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland. The need for increased ambition, in part by protecting and restoring critical carbon sinks around the world, marked a significant call to action in the decade ahead.
Successfully implementing the agreement—referred to as the Glasgow Climate Pact—will depend on governments moving fast and decisively to deliver on it, and doing so would put many nations on a path toward the net-zero-emissions goals they committed to by 2050 (some have pledged to hit this target by 2030). And although the outcome of the Glasgow summit promises an improvement on the anticipated emissions gap reported prior to the conference, the commitments secured at the conference will not be enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—which science says is needed to stave off major impacts of climate change.
The final COP26 text also noted “the importance of protecting, conserving, and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal [limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius], including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.” The pact also calls for “strengthening ocean-based action,” for example by increasing and expanding marine protections for adaptation and resilience.
Throughout the summit, governments identified nature-based solutions—such as restoring coastal wetlands—as an important element of complementing emissions reduction action. Among the countries leading on this were Belize, Costa Rica, and Seychelles, each of which included robust protection and restoration of coastal habitats in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement; NDCs detail a country’s path to meeting its requirements to address climate change. As Costa Rica Vice Minister for Water and Ocean Cynthia Barzuna Gutiérrez, noted during a COP26 event focused on blue carbon (which refers to the carbon dioxide sequestered in coastal habitats): “These high-ambition commitments demonstrate how nature-based solutions can contribute to decarbonizing our economy, enhancing livelihoods, and protecting the planet.”
Other highlights of COP26 included:
- An announcement by 11 countries in support of the call for a global target to protect 30% of the planet’s lands and ocean by 2030—bringing the total number of countries supporting this goal to more than 110.
- The U.S. joining the U.N.’s High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which is committed to sustainably managing 100% of the ocean that is under national jurisdiction.
- Ecuador announcing it would expand the marine reserve surrounding the Galápagos Islands and, together with Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, increase marine protections in the Eastern Tropical Pacific region.
- A pledge from 134 countries, whose lands cover 91% of the world’s forests, to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Brazil, China, Russia, and the U.S. were among those signing this pledge.
- Increased momentum for protecting areas of the high seas to further build climate resilience.
Equity was also a critical focus of COP26, with Indigenous leaders, governments, advocacy groups, and others calling for the inclusion of long-marginalized communities in emission reduction initiatives.
Looking forward, COP26 participants now have the task of turning their climate ambitions into action. Concretely, leaders can enhance protection for nature in their updated climate pledges and design policies and actions to implement those commitments. Further, leaders and nongovernmental stakeholders need to get to work providing the technical and financial support necessary to achieve success in this global effort to combat climate change and protect biodiversity.
No single action will solve climate change, but with a concerted and broad-based effort governments can deliver on their targets and pledges and secure a resilient planet, 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.