Restore the natural world and help save us from climate disaster

08 April 2019 | Posted in Conservation , Climate , Tony Whitbread
Restore the natural world and help save us from climate disaster
surveying sea grass © Roger Herbert

Dr Tony Whitbread

Guest blog

Last week “Natural Climate Solutions”  announced a new initiative to address both climate breakdown and ecosystem breakdown.  This is a group with a broad spectrum of support from Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) to George Monbiot and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and with the sign-up of a large number of key organisations.

The message is simple: restore our battered natural world on a huge scale - far greater than the feeble efforts we’ve seen so far – and this will also draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and so help address climate change.  All efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses remain vital, but our dismal failure to address climate breakdown means that more is needed.  Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is now necessary – and nature is the only viable way of achieving this.

In fact restoring the natural world will give us a huge number of other benefits as well – flood risk reduction, erosion control, pollution reduction, pollinating insects, soil, food, water, oxygen, etc, etc.  As well as just making the world a whole lot better!

“Natural Climate Solutions” calls for the large-scale restoration of lost forests throughout the world, the rebuilding of degraded peatlands on a huge scale, restoration of coastal habitats like salt marsh, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds (some coastal habitats can lock up carbon 40 times faster even than forests).  And so on.  Not just here and there, not just in nature reserves, but on a global scale in all regions.

The climate emergency is well known.  But the breakdown of our natural world is at least as worrying, yet far less recognised.  Warnings of our predicament abound.  Insect populations are falling off a cliff, vertebrate populations are down 60% in the last 30 years and extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than they should be.  More than merely a pity, this is the breakdown of the life support systems on which we depend.

This is not just the rantings of a few radical environmentalists.  An independent international body (with the enormous title of the “Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform onBiodiversity and Ecosystem Services”)  has conducted a three year UN-backed study culminating in an 8,000 page report compiled by 500 experts in 50 countries which is perhaps the greatest attempt yet to assess the state of life on earth

In my mind there are two key messages coming out of this report. 

  • First is the basic fact that we are using nature at a rate that far exceeds its ability to renew itself.  As a result, our ability to support the human population is being compromised in every region on earth.  This is serious stuff – certainly as serious as climate change.
  • Second – this is the most important issue facing the human race and some of the best scientific minds have produced a state of the art document to raise the alarm.  But I bet almost no one reading this blog has heard about it! 

As a species we are obsessed with trivia rather than focus on the things that matter.

Ecosystem breakdown and climate breakdown are, of course, linked.  So it is refreshing to see the group “Natural Climate Solutions” promoting this agenda. 

It is not new, however.  We have been saying similar things in the Wildlife Trust for many years.  Our “Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex”, published in 1997, promoted major restoration of ecosystems throughout Sussex.  20 years later our strategy “Nature and Wellbeing in Sussex” made similar points and giving nature the space it needs to be part of all our lives is the central call in our Wilder Sussex campaign .

Restoring nature was urgent – 30 years ago.  That is why most developed nations signed the convention on biological diversity  in 1992.  Since then progress has been dismal.  Virtually every (unambitious) target has been missed and we have entered the earth’s 6th mass extinction.  More than merely “urgent”, restoring nature is now an emergency integral with the climate emergency.  Maybe “Natural Climate solutions” will give us the impetus we need.

 Dr Tony Whitbread is an independent ecologist and former Sussex Wildlife Trust CEO

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