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OPINION: In the fight against climate change we need nature now more than ever

by Inger Andersen | UNEP
Tuesday, 24 September 2019 11:15 GMT

A man cuts acai berry from an acai palm tree at the Virola-Jatoba Sustainable Development Project (PDS) in Anapu, Para state, Brazil, September 5, 2019. Picture taken September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nature-based solutions address major societal challenges, from food and water security, climate change, human health, to resilience

Inger Andersen is United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director.

The hottest month on record. Wildfires in the Arctic. Deadly heatwaves. Melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. “Hurricanes of hell” in the Bahamas. The news is grim and the warning from Nature is loud and clear: the storm is in our front yard.

Make no mistake: we are in the grip of an existential global environmental emergency. Thankfully, we know precisely what to do to about it. The age of fossil fuels must end, replaced by a new era of clean, renewable energy. As things stand today, even our most ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions fail to match the severity of the crisis by a factor of five. We are careering towards the moment in time when we can no longer keep climate change in check. And as Secretary-General António Guterres noted at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York yesterday, “we fool ourselves if we think we can fool nature.” 

In order to arrest this emergency, and as we decarbonize our economies, we must bring one of our most powerful allies into the fight now – nature. Nature-based solutions address major societal challenges, from food and water security, climate change, human health, to resilience.

Nature-based solutions to the climate crisis can reduce an estimated 12 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is roughly equal to what is emitted from the world’s coal-powered plants. To be clear, I’m not talking about nature replacing decarbonization as a critical strategy of climate action; nature can provide us a buffer as we simultaneously decarbonize our economy in a way that is just and fair to all and leaves no one behind.

Forests are one of the better-known examples of nature’s crisis-busting potential. Trees act as a sink for carbon dioxide. Planting new forests and restoring old ones captures carbon dioxide from the air. And we have other, equally crucial ecosystems that, with proper stewardship, can also act as our first line of defence in a hotter, more chaotic world. Mangroves, coastal forests and sand dunes, natural estuaries, wetlands and coral reefs, all protect coastlines from storm surges and provide habitats for critical fisheries, forestry and recreation, generating billions of dollars every year.

As the world gathered in New York yesterday for the Climate Action Summit, Governments and the private sector responded to the UN Secretary-General’s calls for urgent measures to accelerate action to address the climate crisis. And nature-based solutions as a tool to solve societal challenges were firmly on the table.

Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea have committed to maintaining their forest cover, thus continuing to stock the equivalent of approximately 70 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and allowing the Central African rainforest to continue to provide livelihoods to 60 million people and maintain regional rainfall patterns. And they will be helped by President Macron’s call for the European Union to remain vigilant against imports of zero deforestation commodity products.

Building on its successful Billion Trees Afforestation initiative, Pakistan announced a host of commitments to achieve land degradation neutrality by restoring at least 30 per cent of the country’s degraded forest.

And the power of nature was evident in private sector commitments at the Summit, including the One Planet Business for Biodiversity, led by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Danone, which has developed an ambitious framework to scale up regenerative agriculture practices, diversify product portfolios and support the restoration of high value ecosystems, including forests.

The Climate Action Summit also introduced a nature-based solutions ‘manifesto’, aiming to garner political momentum, financing, and integration of nature in planning and decision making for sustainable development. We have an unprecedented shot at cooperation for nature.

While we are energised by these tangible and ambitious commitments, we know that even with tremendous political will, a world powered by renewable energy will not materialise overnight. It is imperative that we – that our leaders – quickly harness nature’s power for good before our ally becomes our enemy. Cross any number of tipping points and we will witness nature unleash the full fury of climate change. But we still have time. We can act now and ensure that we remain a 1.5°C world.

To stand a chance, we must have nature on our side.