The upcoming COP26, which is due to take place from October 31 to November 12, will focus on global carbon emissions and the daunting challenges of keeping the global temperature rise to a manageable level. It’s already a lofty goal, but delegates gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, and their British hosts are also expected to tackle another pressing question: how collapsing ecosystems are fueling the global climate crisis.
Among the most serious environmental challenges facing many countries around the world are ongoing deforestation, rampant desertification and the increasing loss of fresh water sources. Often these trends amplify each other in dangerous feedback loops, complicating efforts to reverse them. The intense deforestation of the Amazon in Borneo, for example, is depriving the planet of very effective carbon sinks in the form of dense vegetation. At the same time, agriculture and agricultural production undertaken in areas where trees once thrived contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions, while intensive agriculture in other regions draws water from the seas and lakes that anchor entire regional ecosystems.
As a result, these man-made phenomena pose a serious threat both to fragile ecosystems and to global efforts to keep global warming below 2° Celsius, in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Yet the issue of biodiversity loss is often overlooked in discussions of the challenges of climate change.
Losing forests and carbon sinks
The planet continues to lose some six million hectares of forest each year to land clearing, with the vast majority of deforestation taking place in the tropics. Last year alone, the loss of rainforests was equivalent to an area the size of the Netherlands, according to Global Forest Watch.
This rate of loss is disconcerting, as a healthy state of biodiversity is essential not only for life on Earth as we know it, but also for human societies. “[Biodiversity] is important for human development, it is important for access to safe drinking water, to sustainable nutritious food and for a whole host of other reasons as well,” says Gavin Edwards, expert at WWF International.
Encouragingly, participating nations at COP26 are expected to discuss solutions to massive deforestation and the repercussions of ongoing biodiversity loss alongside the impacts of climate change.
“Cop26 has a strong emphasis on trees – it’s like an equal part of ‘coal, cars, money and trees’ because [British Prime Minister Boris Johnson] personally believes that the protection of nature and biodiversity must be an integral part of the fight against climate change. Along with reducing carbon emissions from coal and cars, nature-based solutions are a priority. This is why COP26 sees the UK Presidency pushing for a strong international agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030,” a source told Downing Street. The Guardian.
Rapid deforestation and an increase in catastrophic weather events like prolonged droughts and wildfires have highlighted the fragility of natural carbon ‘sinks’ such as rainforests and wetlands. Recently, scientists discovered that the Amazonian forests produce more than a billion tons of CO2 per year, which means that they now emit more carbon than they absorb.
Major reasons for the reversal of the Amazon’s role as a major carbon sink include continued deforestation, which is also increasing pressures on local ecosystems inhabited by a multitude of endangered species. In other words, harmful human activities, coupled with the effects of climate change, often reduce the ability of existing forests to mitigate our emissions, even as these activities worsen the effects of climate change on beleaguered ecosystems.
“If we want to tackle climate change, we need to stop deforestation,” said Danny Marks, assistant professor of environmental policy and politics at Dublin City University in Ireland. “Unfortunately, in relation to reducing fossil fuel emissions, forests are not getting the attention they deserve before COP26.”
The threat of desertification
As the planet warms, the effects of our mismanagement of ecosystems are often amplified by accelerated processes such as desertification, which has been dubbed “the greatest environmental challenge of our time” by an environmental expert. ‘UN. Once limited to areas as extremely arid as the Sahara, desertification is now occurring across large swathes of Asia and Africa, threatening food and water sources for more than 2 billion people.
Along with rampant desertification, water shortages are becoming a reality across much of the planet. Large bodies of water like the Aral Sea and Lake Urmia have already been drying up for decades due to increased water demand and disastrous environmental policies. Yet even the Caspian Sea, the largest closed inland body of water on the planet, is seeing its water level drop by up to 10cm per year due to rising temperatures and other causes.
This poses great challenges for several countries in Central Asia where other water bodies are also rapidly declining. “Salt storms are an emerging threat to millions of people in northwestern Iran, thanks to the Lake Urmia disaster. Once one of the largest salt lakes in the world, and still the largest lake in the country, Urmia is now barely a tenth of its former size,” the scientists explain.
A success story of environmental restoration
However, despite these grave challenges, we should not take it for granted that ecological collapse is inevitable – or that environmental damage cannot be reversed. The fate of the Aral Sea, for example, is very different depending on the side of the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as the inland water mass has effectively split into two separate parts.
The South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has shrunk into a band of water in the west and an arid basin in the east. This is not the case for its northern part in Kazakhstan, which has worked with the World Bank to manage the water flows feeding its part of the Aral Sea. The Kazakh side of the Aral Sea is thriving again thanks to intensive restoration facilitated by an $87 million project built and financed with help from the World Bank. A levee known as the Kok-Aral dam, which was a major part of the project, caused water levels to rise by 3.3 meters after just seven months of its launch in 2005, despite the expectation of scientists that it would take a decade for the water to rise that much.
“[T]he success has been astounding,” noted Masood Ahmad, the World Bank team leader who launched the project in 2001. “Most governments typically prioritize revenue generation, such as improving irrigation to increase agricultural production or water management so they can supply water to cities. Environmental and ecological improvements are the last thing governments prioritize, but the Kazakhs have done it.
The benefits of the collaborative effort between Kazakhstan and the World Bank to save the northern part of the Aral Sea have been as great in economic terms as they have been in ecological terms. Once on the brink of extinction, the fishing industry that has long been the lifeblood of Aral Sea communities like the city of Aralsk has gradually come back to life, with a reported annual catch of 1,360 tonnes in 2006 rising to over 7,100 a decade later.
And the World Bank’s Aral Sea Restoration Project is far from complete. Several new projects are underway in Central Asia aimed at restoring landscapes in the overexploited region, with the participation of innovators from 28 countries on five continents.
“Restoring degraded landscapes and committing to better environmental management can revitalize many economic sectors while preserving ecosystem services and natural assets,” said Lilia Burunciuc, former World Bank Regional Director for Asia. central. “Furthermore, making livelihoods more resilient reduces people’s vulnerability to possible future shocks, such as climate change, pandemics and natural disasters.
An ambitious reforestation plan
The rescue of the northern Aral Sea demonstrates that ecological protection and economic growth can be achieved simultaneously. Governments preparing to attend COP26 should work with industries and key stakeholders such as indigenous communities (who are often tireless stewards of natural resources) to find long-term solutions to existential threats like deforestation and desertification, building on the example of the World Bank working with countries like Kazakhstan to identify other targeted interventions and forward-thinking policy initiatives that can lead to positive results for both savings and the cause of preserving the environment.
One example is an ambitious large-scale reforestation plan in the UK, which has one of the lowest afforestation rates in Europe. The Northern Forest project, partly government-sponsored, is expected to last a quarter of a century and cost £500m.
In total, some 50million trees will be planted in a dense belt of over 62,000 acres in the north of England, generating £2.5billion in profit and capturing millions of tonnes of carbon within hours train from Glasgow.
Although the project has its detractors, who argue that newly planted forests have nothing on old-growth forests when it comes to biodiversity, it is a step in the right direction. The plan, Bloomberg noted, “amplifies a transformation” that has involved other efforts to “re-green the English landscape”.
“Trees are among our most precious natural assets and are living proof of our investment in future generations,” said Michael Gove, former UK environment secretary. “This New North Forest is an exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover across the North of England, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive and a natural environment that millions of people can enjoy.”
Similar efforts to regrow forests and push back deserts are underway elsewhere on the planet. Governments can and must do more to ensure the success of all these efforts.