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Why nature matters at a climate conference

Explainer / 15 Oct 2021

At the start of November all eyes turn to Glasgow for COP26. The destruction of nature is critical to the climate crisis conversation.

The Climate Emergency is the defining crisis of our time. Warmer temperatures are transforming our planet, causing rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather events and exacerbating the destruction of natural ecosystems. What’s more, it’s our fault. Our human activities like industry, agriculture, travel and consumption of energy, mean we emit around 43 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. That carbon warms our world.

We are also facing a nature crisis. A UN backed report predicts that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction – some already on the brink – because of human activities. Earlier this year the UK government-commissioned Dasgupta Review produced a far-reaching global assessment on the economics of biodiversity. Drawing on Global Canopy’s own work it showed that the pursuit of wealth had come at “devastating cost” to the natural world.

These twin crises are two sides of the same coin. While human-driven climate change speeds up the extinction of so many species, human-led destruction of nature intensifies the effects of climate change. Stopping that destruction is the only way to meet our Paris climate goals. 

The power of nature

Nature is both a sink, absorbing carbon, and a source, releasing emissions. Protecting nature can help reduce temperature rises, destroying it makes their increase inevitable.

Trees are one of our key allies in the fight against climate change. They absorb some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit. The density and diversity of tropical forests, the sheer amount of vegetation in them, means they are critical carbon sinks. The Amazon for example, the world’s largest rainforest, absorbs 2 billion tons of CO2 per year – 5% of the world’s annual emissions.

Forests are not alone in capturing carbon. Wetlands also play a vital role absorbing emissions. Peatlands, a type of wetlands, are the largest terrestrial carbon store. CO2 gets trapped within the waterlogged soil, retaining the gas like a sponge and crucially keeping it out of the atmosphere. Grasslands cover between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s land area. The vegetation that covers them also absorbs greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s the oceans – another vital sink. Blue carbon is the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems – in mangroves and sea grasses and the soil beneath them. The oceans absorb about a quarter of the CO2 that humans create when we burn fossil fuels. But our oceans are under threat too.

From carbon sinks to carbon sources

The problem with all these biomes is that we’re destroying them. The tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover in 2020. Deforestation in the Amazon is at its highest level in a decade. In 2020 Indonesia lost an area of forest cover the size of Los Angeles. The Brazilian Cerrado is the world’s most diverse savannah. A century ago it covered an area the size of Europe – today at least 50% has been razed. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust estimates that over the last 300 years 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost. The degradation of the oceans is also well documented with research showing almost all of the world’s oceans have been damaged by human impact.

The land is cleared for urban development, for industry and for agriculture. Two thirds of tropical deforestation is driven by the global trade of key commodities – soy, palm oil, beef and timber. These forest risk commodities end up in half the products in our supermarkets such as toothpaste and pet food.

This destruction not only destroys habitats, it also contributes to climate change. When vegetation is cleared, it’s often burned and this releases the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. So not only is the continued carbon storage capacity of forests, wetlands and savannahs lost, the process of clearing these landscapes releases further emissions. The combination of these factors and a warming climate, is turning long-standing carbon stores like the Amazon from a carbon sink, to a carbon source

The best current estimates say deforestation is responsible for around 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation emits more CO2 than all of the EU put together. That’s why stopping this destruction matters for our climate.

The human cost

The destruction of natural habitats is not just an environmental disaster. It’s a human one too. There are 1.6 billion people who live in and around tropical forests. In many areas Indigenous communities have been stewards of the land for centuries. And studies show that Indigenous Peoples are the best guardians of this land for preserving nature and biodiversity. But land conversion for agriculture and mining projects is heavily associated with land grabbing and human rights abuses. Taking the land from the communities whose right it is whether to protect the land or not. 

Nature loss and climate change are linked. It is impossible to tackle one without confronting the other. Reforestation can help – but protecting existing forests is more critical. We know that deforestation is already causing climate issues. The current drought in Brazil is the worst in a century. It’s been directly linked to deforestation in the Amazon because the rainforest plays a crucial role in generating rainfall. So if we care about the climate and stopping global warming we have to care about nature and end our destruction of it.

Don’t miss what we’re doing at COP26 – visit our nature and climate hub or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with the latest COP news.

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