Nature’s critical role in the climate fight must be recognized

By Dr Kirsten Schuijt, Director General, WWF International | December 8, 2023

The last year has been momentous for raising the ambition for nature. Nature-based solutions were included in a COP cover decision for the first time, and two major global agreements passed the finish line – with governments agreeing to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and a commitment to sustainably manage and conserve the high seas.

But these successes are at real risk, as the climate crisis spirals into unchartered territory.

Climate change threatens nature as well as human wellbeing. By failing to address the crucial links between the climate crisis and nature loss, we jeopardize the future wellbeing and prosperity of people and planet.

So, why are governments not leveraging the true power of nature, by embedding it as one of the key solutions to tackle climate change? There are so many benefits to be realized, both from a mitigation and from an adaptation lens.

An integrated approach is critical if we are to meet the challenges ahead. We have momentum in the global nature goals, since the Global Biodiversity Framework was agreed in December last year; we now need to see the same momentum for climate action at COP28’s Global Stocktake.

Nature is climate’s silent ally

Every year, world leaders, governments, scientists, civil society and businesses come together at climate COPs to advance efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement. A key part to delivering on that mission however is still missing from the talks – nature itself.

Nature Day on 9 December at COP, is an opportunity for the COP28 Presidency to bring together action on climate and nature. Governments must recognize that we will not be able to solve the climate crisis without addressing nature loss too. With global warming already at 1.1°C, ecosystems are undergoing dangerous disruptions.

But these interconnections also reveal the way towards tackling both emergencies. Nature acts as a silent ally, absorbing a staggering 54% of human-made CO2 emissions over the past decade. Terrestrial ecosystems, including plants, animals, and soils, remove 31%, while the ocean absorbs 23%.

Nature-based solutions for climate have the capacity to provide one third of the global mitigation required by 2050 to deliver on the global 1.5oC target. Efforts to decarbonize our society and halt global warming will help to safeguard nature, but action to protect and restore nature will also help to stabilize our climate.

Moreover, healthy ecosystems like corals, wetlands, mangroves, and forests provide many important resources to local communities, while also protecting them from climate storm surges, heavy rainfall and floods. Healthy ecosystems are crucial as the world learns to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

These co-benefits have not gone unnoticed: a 2021 WWF analysis shows that 92% of national climate plans reference nature-based solutions. As of 2023 however, out of 80 commitments made, nearly half show no or only small signs of progress.

A token mention is not going to deliver the deep and transformative changes we need. We need high quality and high integrity nature-based solutions. Solutions that contribute directly and tangibly to human wellbeing through rights-based approaches and with free, prior and informed consent embedded for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Policy coherence between nature and climate offers many benefits

Nature’s role is critical to meeting the 1.5oC goal, and similarly, halting climate change is critical to safeguarding nature, for current and future generations.

Dr Kirsten Schuijt, Director General, WWF International.

There are so many benefits to addressing these dual crises simultaneously – not least the climate and nature-positive outcomes. A new WWF report shows that effective synergies integrating national strategies and action plans for climate and nature could be one way for governments to do this.

Synergies could help significantly reduce the burden of progress on monitoring and reporting. For example, by ensuring the metrics and methodologies in technical guidance used by countries to report on climate mitigation and adaptation, aligns with biodiversity targets.

Collaboration between sectors, national and local actors as well as coherent policies can increase efficiency and allocation of resources, while also facilitating access to public and private finance needed to achieve targets.

A climate-nature work stream for climate summits is urgently needed

It’s vital that the inextricable link between climate and nature is recognized at the highest levels of COP28, opening the door to a dialogue around bringing nature into the formal climate negotiations for the first time.

They must not only acknowledge the important role of nature for mitigation and adaptation but also galvanize on this symbiotic relationship by coalescing a coordinated work stream – with the convergence of climate and nature policies as its core aim.

A climate-nature work stream would send a positive political signal about the essential role of nature. It could help foster greater integration of nature into national climate strategies and the implementation of action and adaptation plans.

The work stream could also monitor the many nature pledges made at climate COPs which are unassessed for their contributions to the Paris Agreement. Such a body would act to ensure nature stays firmly on the climate agenda – and this type of working body has seen success in bridging divides before.

Food system transformation can be a bridge for climate and nature

In 2017, a similar group to accelerate action to address the impacts of our food systems on climate change was established: the Koronivia Joint Working Group. This led to innovative synergies that boosted the visibility of food systems transformation in climate talks.

With agriculture and food systems being responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of land-based biodiversity loss, but with the potential, according to the IPCC, to cut emissions by 75%, sustainable agriculture forms the keystone in unlocking positive change across the food-nature-climate continuum.

Recognizing the critical role of nature as a climate ally and integrating solutions across sectors will provide a pathway to a more sustainable, resilient, and prosperous future for all.

We have the solutions right in front of us – we just need to implement them. This is our problem to solve, and our opportunity to take. But we need courageous leadership to get us there. Leave nature to do the rest.

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