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OPINION: Nature can help us fight climate change – if we hurry

by Andrew Steer and Patrick Verkooijen | World Resources Institute
Monday, 4 November 2019 15:23 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Residents sit on the banks of the Parana do Amana river at Vila Nova do Amana community in the Sustainable Development Reserve, in Amazonas state, Brazil, September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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

Nature is the first to showcase the effects of a warming planet but also holds the answer to staying – and repelling – this seemingly unstoppable march to climate apocalypse

Andrew Steer is chief executive of the World Resources Institute and Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation. They are the Managing Partners of the Global Commission on Adaptation.

The window of opportunity to harness nature’s own power to protect us from climate change is closing swiftly. As the Amazon burns, coral reefs die and polar ice caps melt, critical ecosystems are steadily approaching a tipping point where they can no longer restore and repair themselves.

Fewer natural buffers, and rising seas from melted ice, will create a new order – one where fires, droughts and floods will be even more frequent and powerful, and the loss to lives and livelihoods more devastating.

Nature is always the first to showcase the effects of a warming planet, but it also holds the answer to staying – and repelling – this seemingly unstoppable march to climate apocalypse.

Solutions rooted in nature, such as forest restoration and conservation, could provide one-third of the reduction in carbon emissions needed between now and 2030 to keep warming below 2°C [1]. They would help ensure, for example, that we still have sufficient forests to act as carbon sinks and wetlands to soak up heavy rainfalls.

Around the world, communities are adapting to the effects of climate change using nature as their ally. We must scale up these nature-based solutions while we still can.

Solutions such as the “Great Green Wall” across the Sahel, where farmers have coaxed trees back to life from rootstock and reforested millions of acres across 10 African countries. The African Union calls it “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought” [2].

Or São Paulo, still recovering from nearly running out of water in 2014, which is also making reforestation a priority. Large swathes of the forests surrounding the city, which buffer it against the impact of floods as well as helping to filter water, had been steadily degraded and destroyed [3]. Now Sabesp, São Paulo's water company, has planted more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) of trees in recent years, and São Paulo itself has become one of the 45 founders of Cities4Forests, a World Resources Institute movement designed to promote integrating nature into urban strategy.

New York’s Green Infrastructure Plan, meanwhile, lays out how the city could cut the costs of flood protection by $1.5 billion over 20 years [4] by combining “green” policies, such as including more trees and plants on rooftops and in city spaces to help capture water, with “grey” infrastructure, such as dams and reservoirs.

To protect against rising seas and storm surges, island nations such as the Marshall Islands are recovering their mangrove forests. This is estimated to be two- to five-times cheaper than building engineered structures like underwater breakwaters, according to a study on nature-based coastal defences [5].

Ten years ago, we visited smallholder farmers in Kisumu, Kenya. Facing more frequent droughts and erratic rainfall, they had begun to adopt climate-smart practices, including tree planting around the borders of their plots to retain moisture in the soil and growing drought-resistant crops, such as maize, beans, groundnuts and cassava.

The farmers achieved a triple win: increased yields, more reliable harvests from planting more resilient crops and a more sustainable future thanks to the role of trees in sequestering carbon dioxide.

Kenya’s farmers teach us that nature is our best ally when it comes to both adapting to the effects of climate change and avoiding more of the greenhouse-gas emissions responsible for global warming.

These solutions not only save lives and livelihoods, but also make good economic sense. The Global Commission for Adaptation’s flagship report on the urgent need to accelerate climate resilience around the world, found, for example, that investing $250-500 per hectare in better dryland farming practices could increase cereal yields by 70-140 per cent, bringing net economic benefits of billions of dollars. Restoring upland forests and watersheds could also save water utilities in the world’s 534 largest cities an estimated $890 million each year.

Reducing our carbon emissions and adapting to changing weather patterns is not a trade-off; we would be foolish to miss the opportunity to do both. However, the option of enlisting nature to help manage climate change will not last forever.

As we write this, large swathes of the Amazon, which produces 20 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, continue to burn. Nothing brings into starker relief the fragility of our interdependence with nature. We must resolve to do everything in our power to work with nature, to protect it and to help it repair and renew. Our very survival may depend on it.

[1]              Page 20 of GCA report

[2]          https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/

[3]          https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/09/help-s-o-paulo-s-complex-water-woes-protect-and-restore-forests

[4]          P10 of http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/green_infrastructure/NYCGreenInfrastructurePlan_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

[5]              Page 21 of GCA report