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Nature protection must be a key part of our climate crisis response, says Fauna & Flora International

For the latest in our regular features with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, Mark Rose, chief executive officer of Cambridge-based Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the world’s longest established international wildlife conservation organisation, considers the outcome of COP26 and what must happen now.

Fauna & Flora International CEO Mark Rose. Picture: Juan Pablo Moreiras
Fauna & Flora International CEO Mark Rose. Picture: Juan Pablo Moreiras

This time last month we at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) were eagerly following, minute by minute, the closing negotiations of COP26, the UN climate summit that took place in Glasgow in November.

The international agreement that emerged from those final, tense hours – the Glasgow Climate Pact – was a step forward for efforts to combat climate change, but still very far from where we need to be.

Carbon-cutting commitments from governments, as they stand, will not be enough to keep us below that all-important 1.5C of warming this century.

On one front however, it’s clear to me now the dust has settled and we head we head into a new year, that COP26 will be remembered as something of a turning point.

More than any other before it, this was the ‘Nature COP’; the moment that the central place of nature protection within the climate debate was almost universally recognised.

Alok Sharma at COP26. Picture: Justin Tallis/PA
Alok Sharma at COP26. Picture: Justin Tallis/PA

This is a very promising development. For decades, those in power have failed to appreciate that the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are not separate issues to be dealt with independently – but deeply intertwined problems that must be tackled together. Now those linkages are well understood.

According to the World Resources Institute, if tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, behind only China and the United States.

Nature loss contributes to climate change, climate change contributes to nature loss – and the politicians seem to get it. One forward-thinking minister at COP26 called this shift in understanding “genuinely profound” – and credit has to go to the UK government and their COP26 presidency, which put nature front and centre from the off, achieving promising international commitments to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 as well as new funding commitments to help communities around the world manage their land sustainably and securely, protecting vital ecosystems in the process.

Amazon rainforest deforestation: An earth mover removes trees which are then burnt
Amazon rainforest deforestation: An earth mover removes trees which are then burnt

But if the cautious optimism those pledges created is to evolve into real progress, there is a huge amount of work that now needs to be done in 2022 and beyond. The expertise and energy of organisations committed to protecting nature – like the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) partners based here in our city – is going to be needed more than ever.

Firstly, we cannot let momentum fall away. The UK presidency of the COP lasts for most of next year and our government needs to use it wisely, focus on delivery and keep up pressure on the world’s biggest polluters to live up to their pledges. At the next climate summit, COP27 in Egypt, nature protection once again needs to be at the heart of discussions.

There also needs to be a clear link-up between the COP26 outcome and another big UN event that’s happening in 2022; the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, or CBD, at its own landmark summit, COP15, in Kunming, China next spring. As the governments of the world meet to set targets for reversing biodiversity loss over the next decade, nature’s role in averting climate disaster must be on the agenda. No more can the two UN processes – one for climate, one for biodiversity loss – operate in separate silos. We are facing twin crises – and they must be tackled together.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest (53479338)
Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest (53479338)

Nature protection is, of course, not a miracle cure for the climate crisis. To achieve our net-zero goals, there is no alternative to deep and rapid cuts to fossil fuel emissions and a transition to green energy.

But there is also no credible path to limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels that doesn’t include nature protection; the safeguarding of vital ecosystems that absorb carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in their biomass and soil. Lose the rainforests of the Amazon or the Congo basin and we’re stuffed. The same goes for the peatlands of Indonesia; the savannahs of Africa or the grasslands of central Asia.

It’s mature, intact ecosystems that store the most carbon. They also tend to be the richest in biodiversity. It’s a beautiful scientific truth that the more biodiversity in an ecosystem, the more carbon it generally holds, so what’s good for nature is good for the climate. It’s the ultimate win-win.

Going into a new year, the fact that the governments of the world are beginning to recognise that fact is cause for cautious optimism.

Read more from the series

Bringing together art, science and conservation in Cambridge

Cambridge Conservation Forum: Bringing together a diverse group of conservationists

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