As world leaders convene at COP26, the climate is the emergency of the moment. Yet it is part of a bigger issue: humanity’s exploitation of nature. Our abuse of earth has put one million species at risk of extinction1, severely altered 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments2, while the world’s oceans are heating up at the same rate as if five Hiroshima atomic bombs were dropped into the water every second3. We can’t rein in climate change without repairing our relationship with the natural world.
Alongside reducing greenhouse gas emissions at breakneck speed, it’s also essential that we start sequestering more of the carbon that’s already been pumped into the atmosphere. Yet for all the talk of techno-fixes4 there is a more equitable, cheaper, and proven method – one that’s been tried and tested for millions of years: nature. Forests, seagrass meadows, grassland, peat bogs and wetlands can soak up carbon dioxide and store it. Wildlife and indigenous communities also play a vital part, by keeping these ecosystems in balance.
Here are two examples of the many Whitley Award-winning projects that are conserving wildlife while mitigating climate change, and benefitting people.
Budiono: Keeping carbon in wetlands and peat swamps threatened by palm oil PLANTATIONS
Whitley Award winner Budiono protects the Critically Endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in Indonesia, and has secured protected area status for the dolphins’ habitat. But the land along its edges – a mosaic of rivers, lakes, peat and swamp forests – is at risk of being converted to palm oil plantations. Already, chemical and fertilizer run off from nearby sites is polluting the ecosystem.
Budiono is securing 175,000 ha of this buffer habitat as an Essential Ecosystem Area (EEA), collaborating with local villages and regional governments. Once in place, the EEA will be off-limits from any new permit requests for industrial land use purposes.
This nature-based solution is better protecting six Critically Endangered and 11 Endangered species who rely on the river ecosystem, while also keeping 180 million metric tonnes of carbon in wetlands and peat swamps from emitting into the atmosphere.
Laury Cullen: habitat restoration and carbon sequestration in the Atlantic Forest
Brazil’s Atlantic Forest once spanned over 1.3million km2. Surging deforestation for cattle farms and sugarcane plantations, compounded by weakening government legislation, has left just 14%. These isolated patches still harbour 7% of global biodiversity, but species including black lion tamarin, jaguar and lowland tapir are threatened with extinction because of this dramatic habitat loss and the subsequent threat of genetic inbreeding.
Whitley Award winner Laury Cullen and NGO IPÊ work have replanted 1.4 million trees to complete Brazil’s first and biggest wildlife corridor, so threatened species have the space to thrive. As a result, the once Critically Endangered black lion tamarin has been re-classified as Endangered by the IUCN. Laury is also providing green income for landowners as well as local people who work in the tree nurseries, while 43,000 tons of carbon is being sequestered for every 500 hectares planted.
Laury’s holistic project is distinct from many tree planting schemes. Rather than building single-species forests without benefit to people or biodiversity, Laury and his team are creating a diverse habitat from the ground up, estimated to sequester up to 40 times more carbon than monoculture plantations.
The climate and nature crises that we have caused cannot be considered in isolation, nor solved independently. And yet, only 3% of global climate finance is spent on nature-based solutions. Imagine what conservationists like Budi and Laury could achieve if that were to increase?
1 and 2: https://ipbes.net/global-assessment
3: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/13/world/climate-change-oceans-heat-intl/index.html and https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs00376-020-9283-7.pdf