Climate adaptation: putting nature first

Posted on September, 13 2019

A report from the Global Commission on Adaptation highlights the role nature can play in helping humans adapt to climate change. But we must help nature adapt, too.
There are three key messages from the new report from the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA): the poorest will suffer most, and inequalities will widen, if we fail to adapt to climate change; there is an overwhelming economic case to invest in adaptation now rather than later; and the natural environment is humanity’s first line of defence against the natural hazards and extreme weather that the climate crisis is generating.

The report highlights the role that nature-based solutions – such as protecting and restoring forests, wetlands and mangroves – can play in helping protect human societies against extreme weather and other more subtle changes, such as sea-level rise and shifting rainfall patterns.

As a nature conservation organisation, we welcome this focus. But we need to remember that unless we also stop further degradation to the environment, and unless we help natural systems adapt to a changing climate, nature won’t be able in turn to help people adapt.

Bringing adaptation into the spotlight

The GCA was launched by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who leads the commission alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. It is mandated to encourage the development of measures to manage the effects of climate change through technology, planning and investment.

Its report makes a vital contribution to the discussion around adaptation. Its headline economic argument – that investing $1.8 trillion globally by 2030 could yield $7.1 trillion in net benefits – is compelling. Its call for three revolutions – in understanding of the issue, in planning for adaptation, and in the provision of finance needed – is welcome, as is its proposed ‘year of action’ during 2020 to promote eight ‘action tracks’, including one on nature-based solutions.

Nature-based climate solutions

Nature offers some of the smartest, most cost-effective ways to adapt to climate change. The GCA report singles out mangrove protection as an example of such a nature-based solution – and finds that investments in mangroves yield benefits worth almost six times their costs, by preventing coastal flooding and by supporting fisheries, forestry and recreation.

It points out that nature-based solutions also help us mitigate climate change, as well as adapt to it: natural solutions such as forest restoration and avoiding deforestation could provide a third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to keep warming below 2°C.

Also of note is the economic argument, with the GCA pointing out that nature-based solutions “can be more cost-effective than engineered approaches, like seawalls,” and can often work in tandem with them. It cites a report finding that combining green and grey infrastructure to protect New York City from floods would lower the overall cost by $1.5 billion – almost a quarter – compared with using hard infrastructure alone.

Protecting and helping nature 

But nature is more than just another tool in the arsenal of approaches to help the world adapt. As the GCA states, “a thriving natural environment is … a cornerstone of building resilience across all sectors”. It also warns that nature is under intense pressure from climate change, arguing that “critical ecosystems are at breaking point ... There is still time to work with nature, not against it, but the window of opportunity is closing quickly.”

Here, the GCA report could go further. If we are to rely on nature to help people adapt to the effects of the climate emergency, we need to help nature itself adapt to climate change. We invite the GCA to adopt a principle of managing the risks that climate poses to nature, and we would welcome the GCA specifying an investment target to support its Nature- Based Solutions Action Track.

The GCA report makes a vital contribution to discussion about adaptation, and we are hopeful it will help to mobilise activity, funding and concrete progress in making the world more resilient in the face of the climate emergency. But, if nature is to meet its potential in helping us adapt, we must make greater efforts to protect it.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF's climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru. 
Nature-based solutions - like mangrove forests - can help us adapt to climate change impacts.
© WWF Malaysia / Mazidi Abd Ghani