Only An Integrated Approach To The Global Climate And Conservation Crises Will Be Sufficient

Recent months have seen the publication of some alarming new scientific reports. One, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concerned the screaming urgency of action to limit global temperature increase to below the widely recognised danger threshold of 1.5°C. Another, WWF’s Living Planet Report, presented data to reveal how since 1970 vertebrate populations have declined by 60 per cent.
While individually challenging, these huge issues of climate change and the impending collapse in our planet’s unique web of life are intrinsically connected. For example, if the world did permit warming to go beyond 1.5°C then the impacts on wildlife would escalate. Warming above 2°C is expected to lead to twice as many species of plants and vertebrates – and three times as many insects – losing over half of their climatically determined range. Combined with fragmentation and loss of habitat, the extinction risk facing a wide array of wildlife species will increase.
A global temperature rise of over 2°C will also transform marine environments. The occurrence of sea-ice free summers in Arctic waters will become ten times more likely, and shallow water tropical reefs will be lost. Should we, on the other hand, manage to limit the warming to 1.5°C, then up to one-third of the coral reefs might survive.
Remaining in the 1.5°C ballpark will require a position of net zero emissions being reached by mid-century,with the journey to that outcome beginning with deep cuts in the coming years. This process will require not only action to phase out fossil fuels, but also the protection and restoration of the natural environment.
Forests and soils are among the ecosystems that hold billions of tonnes of carbon, in vegetation above ground and in organic matter below. The more we disturb and degrade these natural assets, the more carbon once held in these ecosystems is expelled into the atmosphere. If we are to do what is necessary in meeting a net zero emissions future, then this trend needs to be halted – and then reversed.
The protection and restoration of ecosystems is also, of course, vital for the conservation of wildlife. This is another reason why both the climate change and conservation agendas must be pursued as a single integrated plan, rather than as now where they are often pursued at best in parallel (and at worst in conflict with one another). The most important convergence point where integrated action must be taken to simultaneously advance wildlife and climate goals is in relation to our food system.
Among other things, this will require steps to be taken to halt the conversion of forests to fields and pastures whilst increasing forest cover. We will need to increase soil organic matter and take action not only at the level of individual land holdings but at the level of entire landscapes, so that, fragmented areas of natural habitats might be reconnected.
Creating connected landscapes that are rich in carbon and wildlife while at the same time producing nutritious food can be done, but will require a new approach. We will need to go beyond the industrial farming methods that have been harnessed to produce more and more food, much of it at a huge environmental cost, and instead adopt an ecological approach.
We might be more inclined to make the shift needed if it were more widely known that we are actually not short of food. For example, we feed about 40 per of crops to livestock, in turn fuelling unhealthily high levels of meat consumption. Then there is the fact that we waste or lose about one third of the food we produce.
Incentivising farmers to conserve and expand natural areas at one end of the food system can make a difference, while at the other consumer habits and public health must be focal points that help to drive change. In between are a range of actions that can be taken to protect and restore soils and avoid food being spoiled or wasted.
Implementing these transformations would go a long way toward meeting that net zero target. And it will need to, for the reality is that we can’t keep global warming to below the critical danger threshold without conserving and restoring the natural environment. At the same time, it will only be possible to avoid a major extinction event by limiting the level of global warming. Both of these pressing issues will require us to adapt our food system, and this is why when it comes to achieving net zero emissions we must adopt an integrated approach.
The good news is that everyone who eats food can be part of the solution.
This was first published by Cambridge Institute For Sustainability Leadership, 12th December 2018.