OPINION: To cut climate risks and keep 1.5 alive, wetlands are key

by Martha Rojas | @martharojasu1 | Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Monday, 20 December 2021 07:54 GMT

A whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida) flies off after catching a frog on one of the lakes inside Vacaresti wetlands, in Bucharest, Romania, July 23, 2016. Picture taken July 23, 2016. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/via REUTERS ROMANIA OUT.

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Better wetland protection could play a huge role in addressing both the climate and nature crises, and curbing disaster risk

By Martha Rojas

Martha Rojas is secretary general of the Convention on Wetlands.

Last month’s global Climate Convention COP26 saw the imperative to tackle the climate and nature crises together championed through its agenda and cemented in its closing Glasgow Climate Pact.  

As acknowledged in the pact, conserving and restoring forests will be crucial. But reaching the level of emission reductions we need will take scaling up other ecosystems too.

Outweighing all other terrestrial ecosystems’ services for climate, biodiversity and health, wetlands provide unmatched opportunity to achieving climate and biodiversity goals.

While countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to achieving the Paris Agreement, submitted ahead of COP26, saw around 27 countries including the Seychelles, Malaysia and Bangladesh commit to wetlands conservation targets, it will take many more to deliver the impacts we need.

The Convention on Wetlands’ newly launched Global Wetland Outlook shows the cost to our planet of overlooking wetlands – with 35% of global wetland area lost since 1970 and almost 90% lost since the 1700s.

We can’t keep 1.5 °C alive without wetlands

With this loss of wetlands, we are rapidly losing our most powerful ecosystems to lock up atmospheric carbon and protect billions of lives from climate impacts.

Wetlands such as peatlands, mangroves and seagrasses are the most effective carbon sinks on Earth. They store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined.

But when drained and destroyed, wetlands emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, pushing us closer to climate emergency.

Peatlands cover only 3% of the global land surface but store 44% of soil carbon, far exceeding forests. The Convention on Wetlands’ recent report on peatlands shows that to have any chance of meeting the 1.5°C goal we must restore at least 50% (250,000 km2) of degraded peatlands before 2030.

Many countries such as the UK, Germany, Uruguay and Rwanda are embracing this opportunity to slash emissions by restoring peatlands, but we need to see many more countries equating wetlands with climate action.

Wetlands are key to reducing water risk

Climate change is closely related to water change. So it’s no coincidence that water-related disasters such as storms, floods and droughts accounted for 90% of all global disasters over the past decade.

While the international climate pact acknowledged the rising threat of these disasters, the other side of water crisis - water scarcity, a major consequence of climate change – was not sufficiently addressed.

With water scarcity expected to double by 2050, it’s critical we prioritize water security in climate plans. As nature’s collectors and purifiers of fresh water, wetlands are critical to regulating water availability and fundamental to the survival of all economies and ecosystems on a warmer planet.

Wetlands save lives and livelihoods from climate disaster

As climate-related disasters intensify, coastal wetlands such as mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs can substantially reduce risk to the lives of 60% of the world’s population who live or work along coastlines.

With their jagged form, coral reefs reduce wave energy along coastlines and provide up to $34,000 per hectare of protection for more than 200 million people yearly.

These ‘nature-based solutions’ are often far cheaper than hard infrastructure. For example, restoring mangroves to protect against storm surges costs two to six times less than building submerged breakwaters.

And when communities are hit, these ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems help communities recover faster, for instance by protecting crops and freshwater sources from saltwater intrusion and continuing to provide livelihoods.

For example, Belize’s barrier reefs, mangroves and wetlands provide buffers against erosion and storm surges, protecting 40% of its citizens living in coastal areas.

Wetlands are critical to reversing nature loss

Home to 40% of the world’s species, but suffering the biggest losses, wetlands are key to overcoming another major crisis: biodiversity loss.

But just as they have been for the climate crisis, wetlands, particularly freshwater ecosystems, have been long overlooked – resulting in an 81% decline in abundance of freshwater species and a 36% decline for marine and coastal species since 1970.

With so little time remaining for us to close the gap between commitments and action, wetlands present untapped opportunity to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises with the greatest returns.

With less than a year for countries to renew their NDCs and agree a new global framework for restoring biodiversity, it’s critical we see targets, dollars and attention across both agendas committed to wetlands – on which both depend.