Convenient solutions to an inconvenient truth: How old-fashioned conservation helps deal with climate change


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So much is being written about climate change. The heat is on, so to speak, to find new solutions to increasingly dire predictions from ever more detailed data and refined models. Many conservationists are setting great store by the promise afforded by RED (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation) and REDD (add Degradation). It is only a few more months before we learn whether the leaders of the world reach agreement of whether to move forward and unlock the money which could – forest governance permitting – cause a major boost to the funding and rationale for forest conservation.

Meanwhile, a new World Bank report has revealed that conservationists have actually been doing climate change projects all along; they just hadn’t realized it. New technological fixes aren’t essential to taking positive action.

The report was produced by a small team led by our indefatigable Lead Biodiversity Specialist in the Bank’s central Environment Department, Kathy MacKinnon, with inputs from regional specialists. She has pulled together information from a host of World Bank projects which, when looked at through the lenses of ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’, found a large number of interesting initiatives which conserve natural forest, grassland, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. These provide a range of services, often not recognized in national economic accounts but vital to human welfare: regulating water flows and water quality, flood control, pollination, decontamination, carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and nutrient and hydrological cycling. There is no need to develop some new fashion or trend – such as the erstwhile ‘drugs from the rainforest will save the world’, or ‘indigenous people live in harmony with their environment and know how to manage it’ – but just good ol’ conservation contributes in a major way to climate change measures. Not sexy and perhaps hard to sell, but let’s try.

The new report lays out a compelling case for including ecosystem‐based approaches to mitigation and adaptation as a third and essential pillar in national strategies to address climate change. The other two are reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through cleaner energy projects and reducing vulnerability of communities at risk by improving infrastructure to meet new energy and water needs. The ecosystem-based strategies can offer cost‐effective, proven and sustainable solutions contributing to, and complementing, other national and regional adaptation strategies.

Terrestrial and marine ecosystems play a major role in the global carbon cycle. They remove unimaginably large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Worldwide, soils alone are estimated to store 1553 gigatons of carbon (but I honestly have no notion what that really is, but this table provides some orientative conversions). But the important point is that, if given the opportunity, healthy, growing natural ecosystems can mitigate for the emissions of greenhouse gases from energy generation or land use changes.

Areas of high biodiversity (in green) correlate with high carbon sinks (in purple) in Southeast Asia. (Source: UNEP/WCMC, 2008.)

This mitigation is achieved through:

  1. afforestation, reforestation and restoration of natural habitats,
  2. maintaining existing carbon stores (for example, avoiding deforestation or protecting wetlands),
  3. maintenance of the ocean carbon sink, and
  4. substitution of fossil fuel energy by cleaner technologies based on plant material.

Such ‘biofuels’ are by no means a perfect solution and bring their own dangers – but that's another story. About 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation and land use changes, but in tropical regions emissions attributable to land clearance are much higher, up to 40 percent of national totals.  Hence the interest in REDD.

Wetlands, grasslands, and oceans are also major stores and pools for carbon. So it stands to reason that enhanced protection and improved management of natural ecosystems can contribute to both reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration.

But the story is not just about protection for protection’s sake, because ‘adaptation’ is becoming an increasingly important part of the development agenda. Protecting the forests, wetlands, and coastal/marine habitats can provide social, economic, and environmental benefits – both directly through more sustainable management of biological resources and indirectly through protection of ecosystem services. Natural ecosystems maintain the full range of goods and ecosystem services, including natural resources such as water, timber and fisheries on which human livelihoods depend; these services are especially important to the most vulnerable sectors of society during seasonal shortages in staples, or during unforeseen crises. Protected areas, and the natural habitats within them, can protect watersheds and regulate water flow and water quality; prevent soil erosion; influence rainfall regimes and local climate; conserve renewable harvestable resources and genetic reservoirs; and protect breeding stocks, natural pollinators, and seed dispersers, which maintain ecosystem health.

Climate change solutions based only on engineering often work against nature, particularly when they aim to constrain regular ecological cycles, such as annual river flooding and coastal erosion, and could further threaten ecosystem services if creation of dams, sea walls, and flood canals leads to habitat loss. Some of the World Bank’s flood control projects utilize the natural storage and recharge properties of critical forests and wetlands by integrating them into ‘living with floods’ strategies which incorporate forest protected areas and riparian corridors – simple and effective solutions which protect both communities and natural capital.

The World Bank is in the forefront of facilitating the development of market‐based financing mechanisms and piloting new avenues to deepen the reach of the carbon market. New initiatives and investment funds such as the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, Forest Investment Program and the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience provide exciting additional opportunities to better protect natural capital, benefit communities and utilize cost‐effective green technology to address the challenges of climate change.

There is so much more in the report, but I hope you have been intrigued by the above and bought the climate change argument for good conservation and for ecosystem approaches to our climate change responses. If not, let me and Kathy know by leaving a comment below.


Join the Conversation

asmeen khan
July 14, 2009

Nice blog tony and I like all the links, yes as a conservationist we do know that natural ecosystems are the best carbon sinks, especially peat swamps so good to see a study pulling this together

Martin Fox
July 15, 2009

Great presentation and yet again lays to rest the idea that everything that was done in the past was rubbish and un-cool (!). Ok, some things were wrong, others could have been done better but by and large we all work to make this world a better place to live in.
Thanks for your article
regards from Switzerland

Michael Wells
July 16, 2009

Interesting post Tony and good to have the reference to Kathy et al's timely report. Good to hear from Asmeen, too! There is no doubt that many conservation activities provided multiple benefits, no matter how hard these have been to identify and quantify.

The flip side of this is that many current and planned activities being launched in tropical forests and described as 'REDD projects' do strongly resemble earlier 'conservation projects', particularly those conservation projects linked to local efforts to promote livelihood alternatives (e.g., ICDPs and other acronyms).

This means that it would be perilous for the new generation of 'REDD projects' to ignore the lessons from earlier conservation projects, many of which have struggled to be effective. There are signs, however, that this is exactly what is happening in at least some cases.

It would also be rash to assume that the larger amounts of funding likely to become available through REDD will increase the likelihood of successful forest conservation outcomes at local levels, especially when combined with the increased time pressure for REDD-financed activities to generate measurable outcomes in terms of reduced deforestation and degradation.

We need to be careful that we do not once again try to leap from one approach to another in the constant search for 'the answer'. As Kathy has reminded us, there is tremendous value in what was already being done.

July 20, 2009

Since there is no single solution to Climate Change, REDD can be considered as a part of the solutions especially in tropical countries. However, the development of REDD projects is still a challenge(capacity in project development) for developing countries so capacity building needs to be considered in this context. In addition, REDD projects have to overcome some issues in such as the right of indigenous people on utilization of forest resources, financial mechanism and time frame in implementing projects.