INTERVIEW: Save nature to protect people on fast-heating planet, IPCC scientist urges

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 March 2022 10:23 GMT

An Iraqi Marsh Arab man fishes at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

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Ecosystems provide us with food, water and other key natural resources – but those functions are under threat from climate change and over-consumption

- U.N. climate report highlights society's reliance on ecosystems

- Global warming, caused by humans, is damaging biodiversity

- Call made to conserve 30-50% of land, freshwater and oceans

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - People rely on the food, water and climate control that healthy ecosystems support - and must stop ignoring that vital connection as global warming harms forests, coral reefs and other nature, said a top scientist who led work on a new U.N. climate report.

German physiologist and marine biologist Hans-Otto Pörtner said the report - which flags how climate change is turbo-charging extreme weather and other risks faster than expected - makes humankind's reliance on nature increasingly clear.

If people shift the planet "outside of the environmental conditions that are good for us and other life on Earth, then we are in trouble - and that is what we are currently doing," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video interview.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published this week by 270 scientists, is the first to make so explicit how human-driven climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption to nature, threatening the lives of billions around the world despite efforts to reduce the risks.

Those bearing the brunt are people and ecosystems least able to cope, it added - from flooded slum households and drought-hit farmers to bleached coral reefs and trees dying from heat stress in central Europe.

Pörtner said well-functioning natural systems, including rainfall-regulating forests and fertile soils, are essential to produce the food and water we need to survive - and to absorb carbon dioxide, which would otherwise further heat the planet.

But people's tendency to live in concrete-heavy cities and travel by car, train or plane has cut them off from the natural environment, added the researcher with Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine and Polar Research, who co-chaired the working group for the new IPCC report.

"We have the imagination that we have the power to isolate (ourselves) from being dependent on the planet that sustains us but this is ... a clear error," he emphasised.

The report - focused on climate impacts, vulnerability and ways to adapt to a fast-warming world - indicates how nature is already being changed by global warming of about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

It warns some ecosystems could soon reach hard limits in their ability to cope, with dire consequences.

Climate change has caused species losses, increases in diseases and widespread deaths of plants and animals, including in expanding areas burned by wildfire, it noted.

Those impacts on nature have led to economic and livelihood losses and altered cultural practices and recreation around the world, it added.

TIME FOR A TURNAROUND

Pörtner described as "shocking" a film by British broadcaster David Attenborough, now in his 90s, depicting the damage done to nature in his lifetime - from logged orangutan forests to slaughtered whales.

"You wonder where this is going to end and that makes you really call for a turnaround," Pörtner said, arguing that minimising planetary heating is a precondition for efforts to restore the world's flora and fauna.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments pledged to limit global warming to "well below" 2C and strive to cap it at 1.5C. But scientists predict that lower ceiling could be breached within two decades.

Islanders work on weeding and cleaning a wetland at Easter Island, Chile, February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Vega

Besides recommending steeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the new IPCC report calls for conservation of 30% to 50% of the Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats.

A target of 30% is under discussion as part of a new global pact to protect nature, due to be agreed this year at the COP15 U.N. biodiversity summit and publicly backed by about 85 countries.

Pörtner said plants and animals needed space on a crowded planet to function effectively and provide the natural goods and services humans and their economies count on to survive.

People should cut back on over-consumption of those resources to preserve nature's functions in a sustainable way for future generations, he added.

"This is really about saving life on the planet - and our dependence on nature clearly indicates that it is beneficial for the human species to care for all life on the planet," he said.

Humans have already removed half of the planet's trees and other vegetation, he noted, and demand for wood for things like heating, cooking and building is still rising.

The IPCC report urges governments, businesses and individuals to act swiftly to stem the damage, whether by cutting fossil fuel use, regenerating degraded forests and wetlands, or drawing on indigenous peoples' practices that respect nature's boundaries.

It also warns against relying on measures that could fail or lead to more harm, such as planting trees in places they do not normally grow or building higher flood barriers that encourage people to live in risky coastal areas.

Pörtner said efforts to limit and adapt to planetary heating should be stepped up as soon as possible.

"We can do something - and it's becoming an existential necessity," he noted.

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(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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