Despite the massive disruptions of COVID-19, 2021 will go down in history as one of the most important years in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. The eyes of the world will be on global leaders as they convene in China for the 15th UN biodiversity conference (COP15) and in Glasgow for the 26th UN climate talks (COP26).
Encouragingly, the pandemic seems to have only postponed major announcements on countries’ climate change ambitions. Not only is the issue of climate change becoming more mainstream in media, but the focus has broadened to include nature, biodiversity and nature-based solutions (NBS) at the forefront.
But what does all this mean? And what lessons can be learned from the past to ensure that we harness the opportunity to change our trajectory moving forward?
A Brief History of The Science and Politics of Climate Change
Research on the greenhouse gas (GHG) effect dates back to the 1850s with John Tyndall, however, it was only mainstreamed in the 1970s and ‘80s with the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985. This was shortly followed by the confirmation of global warming in 1988 by James Hansen and the establishment of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to act as an independent body to assess the scientific literature on the climate change process.
By the 1990s, there was growing optimism that collective action could address unsustainable global consumption. This was seen at the Rio Summit that built on the success of previous international efforts such as the Montreal Protocol that led to the phase-out of HCFCs and HFCs found in refrigerators, aerosols, and solvents. With a hopeful outlook, the Worldwatch Institute labelled the decade as the “turnaround decade”.
In 1990, the IPCC published its first report that made it clear that global actions were needed and needed fast. As a result, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established to organise global leaders annually to discuss the issue. By 1997, UNFCCC parties had agreed to a set of targets (also known as the Kyoto Protocol) that committed rich countries to emissions targets and ran until 2020. The Paris Agreement has since replaced the Kyoto Protocol, allowing each country to set their own emissions target.
Until Kyoto, scientists and policymakers focused on mitigation – the efforts to limit global warming by reducing GHGs – mainly associated with the shift from coal, oil and gas to clean energy sources. But as research on the effects of global warming improved, the air of optimism shifted with the realisation that mitigation efforts weren’t enough: countries and populations needed to adapt to the consequences of global warming.
By the early 2000s, while mitigation remained the primary focus for rich countries (also known as Annex I countries), adaptation was increasingly the focus for countries in the Global South that were disproportionately affected despite contributing the least to global warming. While academics argued about the differences between adaptation activities and development assistance, for many people and countries, these lines were blurred. Guided by academics and NGOs, by 2010, the Global South had successfully rallied rich countries to pay for adaptation projects and convinced the global community to an equal split in finances between mitigation and adaptation activities.
Despite the mitigation/adaptation dichotomy’s roots in global politics, actual funding available for climate change is nowhere close to what was initially committed. In addition, cross-cutting projects – those that bring both adaptation and mitigation solutions – are increasingly common but pose challenges around how they are monitored and reported.
Where Does Nature Fit?
Nature, biodiversity and nature-based solutions are one of those cross-cutting topics. Forests help reduce emissions by acting as carbon sinks (mitigation), but they can also help societies adapt to climate change by lessening the brunt of disasters and providing people with a source of livelihood (adaptation) – for instance, through non-timber forest products such as coffee, honey, cocoa, etc.
The cross-cutting benefits of nature are part of the reason for the growing prominence of nature-based solutions. Their importance stood out at the 2021 Climate Adaptation Summit in January, which saw leaders express their support on climate adaptation, including the new US Climate Envoy, John Kerry, who gave his first major speech since the US re-signed the Paris climate accord.
In the same month at the One Planet Summit, the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, revealed the country’s plan to spend at least GBP 3 billion on nature and biodiversity over the next five years.
Addressing Climate Change with Nature
Nature investments and nature-based solutions are not a silver bullet to solving the climate crisis, but they bring enormous adaptation and mitigation benefits. Countries worldwide can use nature to bring them closer to a zero-emissions trajectory and bring value and incentives to protect remaining forests and landscapes.
While nature has always played a part in the debate, its potential has been somewhat thwarted by the mitigation/adaptation divide. New terms like nature-based solutions run the risk of hitting the reset button on over 40 years of projects and lessons on climate change. There are major lessons to learn from other similar types of concepts (such as ecosystem-based adaptation) that donors should consider when designing new programs. For example:
1. Local communities need to be central in the design of any nature-based solution program. For these to be transformative, community members should have choices and a say in decision-making.
2. There needs to be diversity in the design and decision-making of new programs that require at least a balanced representation of women and men.
3. Companies and investors need to be part of the conversation from day one and not just part of the exit strategy.
4. Solutions need to speak to country-level policies and priorities to ensure programs are complementary. To this end, recipient governments need to be part of the design to avoid creating parallel activities.
5. Procurement and delivery of nature-based solutions programs need to be transparent, value diversity of suppliers and have effective measures to monitor and evaluate activities.
The average global temperature since 1980 has shot up tremendously (beyond even what the first IPCC report could have anticipated) and, at its current rate, is expected to reach 1.5C by around 2035. The implications of this will be disastrous and require a concerted global response both to help societies recover whilst continuing to curb our emissions.
There’s a massive opportunity to question the adaptation/mitigation dichotomy and support donors and companies to ramp up investments in biodiversity-friendly business models and mainstream climate risks across all sectors, a change that should have happened 40 years ago.
Stephanie Andrei works in Palladium’s Climate, Environment and Natural Resource team supporting projects on monitoring, evaluation and learning and gender equality. Download The Catalyst Special Report: Climate Change and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.