News Round-Up

Climate change, biodiversity loss and social justice – these challenges can only be overcome together

The fight against global warming and for sustainable development can only succeed if, from now on, humankind considers the issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and social justice together, and takes them into account equally in all political decisions – globally, nationally and regionally – as well as their interactions. According to the German co-authors, this is the most important takeaway from a new workshop report on biodiversity and climate change, the first to be jointly prepared by experts from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report to which scientists from AWI, UFZ, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and other institutions contributed, shows why especially phasing out fossil fuels is important for limiting global warming and for conserving nature. In addition, they demonstrate how healthy ecosystems can make long-term contributions to climate. 

At the same time, the authors reveal the extent to which one-sided climate actions like large-scale cultivation of energy crops can harm the environment in both the short and long term, and reduce its ability to regulate the climate and provide sufficient food, drinking water and other services essential to our survival. 

“Our synthesis reveals the diverse ways in which the climate and the environments of the Earth influence one another. As such, we can’t look at them separately, since both aspects are essential for the sustainable, socially just development of human communities: We need as little global warming as possible, and a biodiverse, productive and resilient environment,” says Prof Hans-Otto Pörtner, a climate researcher and marine biologist at the AWI who jointly coordinated the workshop report with the South African conservation expert Prof Robert J. Scholes. 

These close ties pose tremendous challenges to political decision-makers. “If the international community wants to reach the goals it has set for climate mitigation, nature conservation and development, it will have no choice but to jointly consider the needs of the climate, the environment and local people. In other words, the tasks involved will become more complex because e.g. climate actions that sound promising in the first place can have far-reaching negative impacts on the environment and local people,” says co-author and biodiversity expert Prof Josef Settele from UFZ and iDiv. 

The challenge: consistently tapping the climate mitigation potential that the environment holds, while simultaneously keeping an eye on ecosystems’ limits

One striking example is the clearing of tropical rainforests to make way for planting energy crops like soy and oil palm. But in Central Europe, too, the growing competition for land raises the question of how agriculture, forestry or coastal use need to be pursued in order to strike a sustainable balance of interests between climate, environment and human beings – in other words: to preserve biodiversity, produce sufficient and nutritious food and minimise greenhouse-gas emissions, while also retaining as much of the carbon stored in forests and soils (including the seabed) as possible. “Climate-friendly land use is possible if in decision-making we take into account how much the respective environment is capable to deliver, and which forms of use allow as many people as possible to profit from it,” says Settele. 

When it comes to forests, political decision-makers are faced e.g. with the question of whether to intensively cultivate monocultures for raw materials and energy production or to promote the establishment of biodiverse ecosystems. “However, given how rapidly climate change is progressing, we can’t automatically assume that our native tree species will be suited to the future climate,” says Pörtner. There is growing evidence that local species won’t be robust enough. And this is equally true for tree species currently in the mid-latitudes and those in the tropical rainforests.

The wrong approach: Biodiversity conservation cannot justify continued emissions 

In light of these new findings, new policy strategies that offset greenhouse-gas emissions produced in energy-intensive sectors by ecosystem restoration and nature conservation measures would appear misleading and counterproductive. “In terms of climate policy, it makes no sense whatsoever to justify the continued emission of greenhouse gases with the argument that an existing forest isn’t cut down,” says Pörtner. “In the short term, the world needs to achieve drastic emissions reductions in order to stop the temperature rise, but at the same time, it needs to preserve and restore large, healthy ecosystems, which once emissions are down will allow us to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than is released by human activities. We should view the environment’s services as an additional resource, one that should be expanded on in the long term.” 

This type of climate and nature conservation policy would have the best chances of success if, at the same time, there were major undertakings in the social context: “What we need to do is combat poverty worldwide and get rid of inequality. Due to their precarious social and financial circumstances, many people have no choice but to eke out a living with hunting, illegal fishing, gold mining or other activities that contribute to the wide-scale overexploitation of the environment. Freeing them from their plight would be an important contribution to sustainable climate and nature conservation,” Pörtner claims. 

Nature conservation and climate actions as a joint guiding principle for all political decisions

The participating researchers feel that the new workshop report offers an important basis for future political decision-making: “It brings together the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and social crisis, and shows that these three crises can only be overcome through parallel, harmonised transformation processes,” Settele summarises. 

It would be conceivable e.g. to introduce a biodiversity law based on the model of Germany’s Federal Climate Change Act or combine the two. In this way, the authors claim, the topic of nature conservation could be liberated from its current political niche and a pioneering biodiversity protection approach could be established that transcended the boundaries between ministries. In the future, they conclude, all political decisions should be assessed on the basis of how well they achieve the best possible outcomes for climate, biodiversity and local communities. 

The IPBES-IPCC Workshop Report on Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Climate Change has been published and can be downloaded at www.ipbes.net/BiodiversityClimateScience  

A total of 50 authors and a 12-member scientific steering committee were involved in the workshop report.

The IPBES-IPCC Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change gather the outcomes of a joint online workshop that brought together selected authors from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The workshop was held from 14 to 17 December 2020. Neither the Workshop Report nor the conclusions presented therein were subject to the official review procedures employed by the IPBES and IPCC. Further, the Report was not officially approved by the full assembly of either institution and as such is neither an official IPBES publication nor an official IPCC publication. Rather, the Workshop Report, which was reviewed by more than 20 external experts prior to publication, is to be considered an additional resource that the authors of both intergovernmental institutions may consult in connection with current and future reports. 

Provided by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).

Header image: Global warming is leading to increasing water shortages for animals and plants, including our food and energy crops. Credit: Bluedesign.