Posted on 21 May 2019
Net-zero economies by 2050 are fundamental if society’s well being is to have a chance on this planet. Efforts to transform our economies and societies to align with 1.5℃ is inhibited by the ever changing climate. How we adapt to this changing climate will be one of our species’ defining stories for this coming century. Efforts to do so are underway. These efforts can be done in a way which continue to damage the planet, or in ways in which the extraordinary and unique services of nature can be privileged for this endeavour in a win-win-win (adapting people, conserving nature, reducing climate impacts) manner.
Climate change, caused by human activity, is having devastating impacts on nature. It is a leading contributor to a mass extinction that could see a million species – an eighth of the world’s biodiversity – disappear. As we make choices about how we adapt to a climate change, promoting nature-friendly adaptation in the decisions we take must take centre stage.
In September, the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA), a UN body charged with scaling up adaptation around the world, is to publish its flagship report, ahead of the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit.
Led by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, philanthropist Bill Gates, and World Bank head Kristalina Georgieva, the GCA will explain why adapting to climate change is essential and must be accelerated. It will set out the actions needed, and how governments, companies and individuals can work together to build a safer and more climate-resilient future.
WWF supports the aims of the GCA. It is vitally important that adaptation rises up the political agenda and that, as public concern build about the need to reduce emissions, attention, resources and efforts are also directed towards preparing for the changes to come.
But we are concerned that, in its deliberations, the GCA pays sufficient attention to the protection of nature, recognises the role that nature can play in helping communities to adapt to climate change and, in turn, helps our natural systems themselves adapt to the changes ahead.
As a starting point, adaptation actions in general and the recommendations of the GCA in particular should aim to do no harm. There is profound danger posed by ‘maladaptation’ – actions that might reduce short-term social or ecological vulnerability, but which, over the longer term, make people or ecosystems more vulnerable to climate impacts. Flood defences in one place can increase flooding risk elsewhere. Shrimp farms can increase a community’s income, but the destruction of mangroves can make it more vulnerable to flooding.
Second, adaptation policy should first consider natural solutions before resorting to potentially more costly responses, such as building physical infrastructure. Natural solutions – such as protecting wetlands, replanting forests or restoring mangroves – can often not only support human climate adaptation, but deliver co-benefits, such as biodiversity protection.
Third, it is critical that we help nature itself adapt to climate change. As the recent report from IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – spelt out, climate change is disrupting ecosystems around the world. Rising temperatures, ocean acidification, changing patterns of precipitation and the spread of invasive species are all testing the abilities of natural systems to adapt.
A concerted global effort is urgently needed to recognize the value of the natural world to adapt people, that nature can add significantly to the solutions to reduce emissions, and that nature needs our support to facilitate its adaptation . The Global Commission on Adaptation can be a clear champion for nature, creating a specific and cross-cutting track in its work program and promoting countries to strike a new deal for people and nature ahead of 2020.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru.