Forests: An underused toolbox for enhancing climate resilience

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Clearing the forest, Democratic Republic of the Congo. [Julien Harneis/Flickr]

World leaders have to find new ways of tackling the climate issue. One of the answers might be to integrate nature conservation efforts, such as restoring forest landscapes, writes Luc Bas.

Luc Bas is the Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Although a positive momentum of action from governments and stakeholders alike was created during the past year in the run up to the UNFCCC negotiations in Paris, the original expectations for a fully-fledged, legally binding deal with concrete targets have turned into a long-term trajectory of increased flexible action.

The original goal to keep the global average temperature rise below 2°C from pre-industrial levels is far from being reached, as the currently tabled Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) from the parties will clearly not get us there according to the UNFCCC’s own assessment.

We have to find new ways of tackling the climate issue, and one of the answers might be to stop viewing the problem in isolation, and instead integrate our mitigation and adaptation approaches into broader sustainable development and nature conservation efforts.

Currently, the climate change debate has a strong focus on the important need to drastically reduce carbon emissions from energy and transport through technological innovation, while other complementary and existing options, such as using the strong mitigation and adaptation potential that nature and the natural functions of ecosystems can offer are hidden in the background. Conservation, restoration and sustainable ecosystem management generate significant and practical solutions, while also yielding economic and social benefits.

A concrete step in this direction is the accelerated restoration of forest landscapes. The Bonn Challenge was put forward by the German Government and IUCN in 2011, and calls for commitments to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020. On its own, reaching this commitment would remove 1 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. In the context of the recent New York Declaration on Forests, the target for the Bonn challenge has ambitiously increased to 350 million hectares by 2030.

These nature-based solutions are ‘no-regret’ measures, and they also offer concrete and cost effective options for adapting to the effects of climate change that we have not yet fully exploited. To push this concept further, IUCN has been working on promoting the concept of ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’ (EbA), which uses the natural power of ecosystems to increase resilience against climate change. For example, here in Belgium, the Eastern Scheldt estuary is prone to erosion and therefore flooding, particularly from extreme weather events. To prevent this, oyster reefs were installed to fortify the protective capacity of the flats, but they also created new habitats and provided water filtration services.

At the COP21 negotiations, IUCN is therefore asking the international community to give the fullest consideration to the appropriate integration of EbA approaches in the Paris Agreement and to recognize the role of ecosystems in acting as natural carbon sinks and alleviating the pressure of GHG emissions. This includes asking parties to incorporate EbA mitigation and adaptation measures into their INDCs.

It is almost certain now that 2015 will be (yet again!) the hottest year on record, eclipsing 2014. The international community clearly knows that there is no time for complacency, and there certainly is considerable momentum for a meaningful international climate agreement in Paris. But will this be enough to reach the 2°C target?

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