Solving multiple challenges while considering biodiversity and human rights

Cormorant from Kole WetLands ,Thrissur, Kerala. Photo by Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons.

Cormorant from Kole Wetlands ,Thrissur, Kerala. Photo by Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons.

  • Strict social and environmental safeguards must be followed to prevent harm to biodiversity or human rights while advancing the scope of nature-based solutions in climate mitigation, a new report says.
  • The report by UNEP and IUCN observes that actions in forests have the greatest total mitigation potential. Agricultural ecosystems, such agroforestry, also offer significant mitigation potential for India.
  • Interventions such as restoration of soil and biodiversity outside protected areas also offer relatively inexpensive nature-based solutions to address multiple challenges in India.
  • Many climate change and biodiversity conservation issues are connected and the Glasgow Climate Pact, finalised at the United Nations climate change conference in November 2021, recognises the interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Protection, restoration and better management of ecosystems through Nature-based Solutions (NbS) feature in many national commitments, including India’s, but there is scope for much more in climate change mitigation and adaptation, say authors of a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A significant contribution from NbS is both necessary and possible to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Still, it requires adherence to strict social and environmental safeguards to avoid harm, emphasised the Nature-based Solutions for climate change mitigation report. The report was launched during the Glasgow climate conference (also known as COP26) in November 2021. COP26 prominently featured discussions on nature and NbS in climate mitigation and adaptation, capitalising on the synergies between climate action and biodiversity protection agenda and bridging the discussions with the second part of the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15) in 2022.

Authored by experts from the UNEP, the IUCN and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the report underscored the importance of securing additional finance to engage the contributions from NbS in climate mitigation. It analyses and summarises existing peer-reviewed literature and other published sources on the potential of nature-based solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The IUCN defines nature-based solutions, or NbS, as actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges (e.g. climate change, food and water security or natural disasters) effectively and adaptively while simultaneously providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits.

The report finds that NbS can deliver emission reductions and removals of at least five gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 and at least ten gigatons by 2050 on a conservative basis. It found that while global mitigation potential is spread across ecosystems, all studies conclude that actions in forests have the greatest total mitigation potential.

“On average across studies, 62% of global mitigation potential falls within forest, so it’s not surprising that actions are also often focused upon forest. There has also been more support for developing countries for developing forest mitigation strategies, through the REDD+ process under UNFCCC, than there has for mitigation in other ecosystems,” report co-author and UNEP-WCMC researcher Lera Miles told Mongabay-India.

Planned afforestation is among the many strategies highlighted in India’s Nationally Determined Contribution to reduce the current concentration of carbon dioxide by enhancing sinks (e.g. increasing the area of forests).

According to another recent global analysis, India is among the top 15 countries with the highest total cost-effective mitigation potential from land-based measures. Improved forest management (from a carbon perspective that could mean increased harvest interval or reduced logging impacts), forest restoration/afforestation, reducing deforestation are actions with the most significant mitigation potential, the global dataset shows.

Agroforestry, improving soil carbon uptake in croplands and grasslands, improving crop nutrient management to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions and improving rice cultivation to reduce methane emissions can mitigate climate change in agricultural ecosystems. “…..with smaller contributions from protecting and restoring mangroves. There was no estimate for mitigation potential in India’s peatlands, but that’s because they are poorly documented – where peatlands do exist, protecting their rich below-ground carbon stocks from harm is critical. That means avoiding drainage and rewetting already drained peatlands,” added Miles, referring to the global dataset.

“Actions only count as NbS if they have benefits for human wellbeing and biodiversity – so any proposed land uses that have carbon benefits, but harm biodiversity or human rights are far from being consistent with the definition,” cautioned Miles.

Using the example of biochar (a charcoal-like substance produced from biomass), the report illustrates when biochar can be helpful to the environment and when it’s harmful.

The key, says Miles, is to avoid further conversion or degradation of our ecosystems to produce biochar. The concern is that demand for biochar could drive unsustainable harvest (forest degradation) or land conversion (deforestation or diversion from food crops), in the same way, that high demand for charcoal used for fuel can be unsustainable.”

“If food waste or crop residue can be used to create biochar instead of being dumped or burned, that is a far more positive application that has other environmental benefits. So safeguards need to be in place to make sure that biochar is developed sustainably,” Miles added.

An agroforestry system with trees, crops, horticultural crops, livestock and a farmer’s home. Agroforestry can contribute to climate mitigation. Photo by World Agroforestry Centre/Devashree Nayak/Flickr.

Interlinked crises and convergence of biodiversity protection and climate mitigation goals

The role of nature and Nature-based Solutions has been much more prominent at the Glasgow climate change conference than any (COPs) before. Most of this discussion has taken place outside the formal negotiations but has impacted the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, pointed out Miles.

The Pact emphasises the importance of “protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems” to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by protecting biodiversity, “while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.”

The Pact also recognises the “interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

The agenda of biodiversity protection was at the forefront in October, when the first part of the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15) saw the Convention of Biological Diversity parties adopt the Kunming Declaration, committing to negotiate an effective post-2020 biodiversity framework. The second part of the CBD COP15 is scheduled in April-May 2022, in person, in Kunming, China.

Evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist Kamal Bawa commended the “convergence of goals” at COP26 that traditionally have been separately espoused by COPs related to biodiversity and climate change.

“Many climate change and biodiversity conservation issues are interlinked. Restoration, and enhancement of agrobiodiversity and agroforestry that fall under the umbrella of NbS and are fundamental to realising the 30X30 vision, should be and hopefully would be post-2020 goals,” Bawa told Mongabay-India when asked about the emphasis on the “30×30″ target pushed by a coalition of governments and NGOs to protect 30% of Earth by 2030. He was not associated with the UNEP-IUCN report.

Augmentation of biodiversity will be needed in degraded forests and other degraded natural habitats for India to achieve the 30X30 target observed Bawa, the Founder-President of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a Bengaluru-based think tank.

“Even within our protected area, there is considerable scope for the restoration of biodiversity. More importantly, the 30 X 30 vision cannot be realised without the active engagement of civil society and the notion that people in many areas will be a part of sustainable, multifunctional landscapes.”

Bawa noted in a blog that COP26 sessions organised by groups like the ATREE-led Alliance for Reversal of Ecosystem Service Threats (AREST), spotlighted “restoration of soil and above-ground biodiversity outside the protected areas constitute relatively inexpensive nature-based solutions to the problems of climate change, climate-resilient agriculture, rural employment, and alleviation of poverty.”

Expenses have to be considered in terms of costs and benefits. “Take, for example, climate change, and consider the most obvious solution for reducing emissions from transitions to renewable energy that involve phasing out of fossil fuels, including coal. The transitions involve substantial economic and social costs. In contrast, nature-based solutions to reduce emissions by sequestering carbon would result in economic and social benefits. Indeed there will be costs, but benefits will outweigh the costs. I am not saying that sequestration alone would allow us to meet the targets of decarbonisation.”

But addressing concerns, such as land-grabbing, in implementing NbS in biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation in India will not be easy. “First, we need to identify the lands using geospatial tools combined with assessments on the ground. Second, the lands must be classified according to ownership, tenure, and usage,” said Bawa.

Third, various stakeholders representing government agencies, non-government organisations, and community-based institutions will have to develop a plan or a roadmap. “The private sector may have an essential role once there is a broad-based consensus for the plan,” he observed.

Referring to the UNEP-IUCN report, Lera Miles of UNEP-WCMC emphasises that action by and close coordination between public and private actors will be required to secure additional funding to engage the contributions from nature-based solutions. “It is essential that where the private sector purchases nature-based solutions offsets as part of its pathways to achieve net-zero, these offsets are in accordance with social and environmental safeguards and are a small part of a wider mitigation strategy focused primarily on deep decarbonisation.”

Banner image: Cormorant from Kole Wetlands, Thrissur, Kerala. Photo by Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons.

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