The Necessity of Ecosystem-Based Adaptation to Climate Change at National Level

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By: CEEweb for Biodiversity, a network of 64 non-governmental organizations in the Central and Eastern European region. Our mission is the conservation of biodiversity through the promotion of sustainable development.

This is part one of a 6 article series on policy recommendations for climate change

Recommendations to national decision makers in Central and Eastern Europe

CEEweb for Biodiversity, as an organization focusing primarily on biodiversity issues, has the mission of promoting the understanding on the deep interrelation between climate change and biodiversity, and facilitating coherence between the policies in these two fields. This paper contains the collected views and recommendations of nature conservation NGOs throughout Central and Eastern Europe about the synergies between nature conservation and adaptation to climate change. Our aim with this paper is to draw the attention of CEE national decision makers to the huge capacities and potential benefits offered by ecosystem-based adaptation in our region, and to influence national climate change policies and especially adaptation strategies in a way that biodiversity and sustainability aspects are given higher priority in the future.

 Climate change is already unavoidable

Despite lots of international efforts during the last 20 years, global CO2 concentration has increased in the atmosphere by 35% since 1990, and is still growing. Now we came to the point that, even if the CO2 level could be fixed within the next several years, climate change would still unfold in the coming decades. This is underpinned by recent surface temperature observations (already about 0.8°C global warming) and elevated atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gases. We can reach or even surpass 2 degrees Celsius warming as compared to the pre-industrial average surface temperature level if we approach 450 ppm concentration of CO2 equivalents (including all greenhouse gases), according to IPCC. Two degrees is considered to be a threshold, above which various uncontrollable and disastrous impacts can occur.

While its future magnitude is still uncertain, climate change is already a fact. Therefore, besides enhanced efforts in mitigation, adaptation also needs to be highlighted on the political agenda, as it was also emphasized during the recent international climate negotiations.

The interrelation between climate change and biodiversity

The global climate system is determined by the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere and the biosphere, and is extremely complex with a lot of non-linear connections, the understanding of which requires system-thinking. In spite of that, climate policy in most cases deals solely with the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, although alteration of biogeochemical cycles through excessive use of natural resources and decrease of natural surface cover due to degradation of ecosystems are, though very hard to tackle, just as determining causes of climate change.

Ecosystems are extremely important in regulating and stabilizing the climate at all levels from global to local. Half of the anthropogenic emissions are currently absorbed by marine and terrestrial ecosystems, functioning as huge buffers between emissions and the warming caused by them, and storing enormous amounts of carbon fixed in biomass, soils and the oceans. Thus natural ecosystems provide significant mitigation capacity. Besides capturing and storing carbon, ecosystems play key role in the global circulation of nitrogen and water too, both very important in the climate system. At local and regional level, healthy ecosystems offer significant resilience and adaptation capacity against meteorological and hydrometeorological extremes such as floods, droughts, windstorms and heat waves, as well as against biological challenges such as invasive alien species, emerging diseases and pest outbreaks.

These functions of ecosystems are stabilized by the huge diversity of life forms hosted by them (i.e. biodiversity), which makes ecosystems resilient to stress to a large extent: able to survive and keep or restore their functions after disturbances. Apart from biodiversity, sufficient area and spatial coherence are also necessary for the ecosystems to be able to function properly.

Despite, natural habitats are still lost or degraded with a frightening speed worldwide, forcing more and more ecosystems into irreversible change or even collapse. Since ecosystems provide very basic needs for society and economy, this may have far-reaching adverse consequences for humans, too. At a certain point of habitat loss and degradation, ecosystems might reach so-called tipping points at biogeographic scale, over which they might easily turn from carbon sinks into sources, and release greenhouse gases in a magnitude which is comparable or even bigger than anthropogenic emissions.

The ecosystem-approach in adaptation to climate change

Adaptation includes an extremely wide variety of initiatives and measures, covering practically every sector such as health and social issues, production systems, spatial planning and the built environment as well as nature conservation, agriculture, forestry and water. Adaptation to climatic variability has a long history (e.g. adaptation to recurring drought events), however present climate change hazard enhances the need for increasing adaptation capacities. Preparation for adaptation should start with vulnerability assessment; and increasing of adaptation capacities should start with lessening the general vulnerability level, i.e. strengthening the general resilience level. In our view, strategies on adaptation to changing environmental conditions in all sectors need to be integrated in a wider framework of environment policy, in order to avoid conflicts between the different sectors as well as with climate change mitigation targets.

We emphasize that the ecosystem-based approach is essential for many areas and activities; however it is not relevant for all of them. Therefore we are dealing in this article series only with the most relevant areas and sectors directly linked to ecosystems – as nature conservation, agriculture, forestry and water. In these sectors, technological solutions for adaptation are often conflicting with the goal of biodiversity protection or even with mitigation targets, especially measures which require large inputs in terms of energy and natural resources. On the other hand, ecosystems often offer cheap and ready-to-use solutions mutually beneficial for the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. These win-win solutions are safe and work locally even if the international efforts to halt climate change might fail (so-called no-regret options). In most cases they are even much cheaper than sophisticated and energy-demanding technologies. The mission of CEEweb to promote these win-win solutions is in harmony with the position of the European Commission, as stated in its White Paper on Adaptation to Climate Change:

Ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, flood protection and protection against soil erosion are directly linked to climate change and healthy ecosystems are an essential defence against some its most extreme impacts. A comprehensive and integrated approach towards the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystems and the goods and services they provide is needed.

The need for such coherent approach is also well reflected in the cooperation between the two relevant conventions (and their secretariats), i.e. UNFCCC and CBD.

Central and East Europe is among the regions with richest biodiversity in Europe. Therefore it has a lot to lose in terms of natural capital on one hand, but on the other hand provides great opportunities in terms of employing biodiversity for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Therefore, we would like to emphasize the need for a ‘biodiversity check’ for each planned adaptation measures, to ensure that biodiversity and ecosystems are not adversely affected.

In the follow-up articles we will discus four areas in which the ecosystem approach is highly relevant: agriculture, water, forestry and nature conservation.

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