Nov 29

Representatives from countries around the world are currently meeting at this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, to debate how best to tackle the climate crisis.

Given the lack of progress made during the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, and the limited headway made at the 2010 summit in Cancún, Mexico, breaking the deadlock over climate negotiations will be essential if a global deal to reduce carbon emissions is to be reached in the near future.

Can nature stem the impacts of climate change?

Gray mangrove in habitat

Mangrove ecosystems store huge amounts of carbon and are vital in coastal protection in many areas, yet vast amounts of mangrove habitat is being destroyed each year.

A number of topics will be debated over the course of the next fortnight, with solutions offered by nature coming high on the agenda. According to IUCN, nature plays an immediate and effective role in stemming the impacts of climate change.

Evidence suggests that by protecting and sustainably managing ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and coastal areas, it may be possible to help slow the rate of climate change by capturing and storing large amounts of carbon, thereby simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

“Ecosystem-based adaptation is a cost effective, no-regrets solution that governments ought to incorporate into national policies and take immediate action to implement on the ground,” says Stewart Maginnis, Director of IUCN’s Environment and Development Group.

“Improving the management of river systems, coral reefs, mangroves and forests all tangibly improve the resilience of people’s livelihoods as they deal with the sudden and long-term consequences of climate change.”

Cost effective, win-win solutions

Canopy of Atlantic forest with emergent trees

Forest protection programmes, such as REDD+, are a cost-effective way for governments to begin mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Forest-based protection programmes, such as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), are just one way in which governments can adopt a cost-effective solution to help combat the effects of climate change.

However, forests are not the only natural systems that offer governments practical nature-based options. Grasslands, drylands, and coastal and marine ecosystems are all crucial elements for conserving carbon, and protection of these ecosystems is therefore vital in the fight against climate change.

In addition, the protection of these different ecosystems plays an important role in ensuring that valuable resources, upon which millions of people depend on daily for water, food and safety, are maintained for future generations.

“People often don’t realize just how effective nature can be in tackling the effects of climate change,” says Edmund Barrow, Head of IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Programme. “The challenge is to find the most appropriate and sustainable ways to manage and use these resources. Intact coastal ecosystems offer a double benefit in the face of climate change – not only do they protect communities from inevitable sea level rise and storm surges, but healthy coastal systems also capture and store huge amounts of carbon.”

Tackling ocean acidification

Bleached Acropora coral

Marine organisms, such as corals, are particularly affected by ocean acidification and climate change.

As well as highlighting the role that nature can play in reducing the impacts of climate change, IUCN are also calling on decision makers at the Climate Conference in Durban to urgently address the problem of ocean acidification.

Along with overfishing and pollution, ocean acidification is one of the most serious threats to the marine environment. The ocean absorbs around 25% of all of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere every year, and this is having an extremely negative effect on the world’s oceans.

Ocean acidification particularly affects marine organisms, especially those which build shells, such as crustaceans, molluscs and coral reefs. If the current rates of ocean acidification continue it may have severe ecological consequences, and could lead to extinctions of some species, as well as impacting others that feed on them.

The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere every day are changing our oceans, steadily increasing their acidity, and dramatically affecting marine life,” says Professor Dan Laffoley Marine, Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, and Chair of the International Ocean Acidification Reference User Group (RUG).

This may also have severe impacts on human life in the future. Only by reducing our CO2 emissions and enhancing the protection of oceans to strengthen their ability to recover, can we effectively address this issue.”

Visit the Climate Conference (COP17/CMP7) website.

Read more about IUCN at the UN Climate Summit.

Find out more about climate change on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author