Working with nature, so nature can work with us

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 5 June 2020

On this World Environment Day 2020, we are rightfully shining a spotlight on nature and biodiversity. But the way the world is thinking about nature is changing.

We see a renewed understanding – not least in light of the COVID-19 crisis – that nature is not something apart from us, like some decorative feature to be protected from humanity’s worst excesses.

In societies that had started to separate humans from the natural world, people are returning to the notion that nature is something we are part of, integrally, which offers indispensable solutions to the multiple crises we face – including climate change. (Of course, there are many who never lost this understanding.)

What nature provides

Nature can play a huge part in reducing CO2 emissions. The Sun is the source of enormous reserves of renewable energy – some of which we can capture through solar panels and (indirectly) wind turbines. The Moon provides the gravitational energy that moves the tides (which can be used for tidal power). The Earth gives us geothermal heat (which can be used for geothermal power).

Nature can also help us adapt to climate change, making societies more resilient. Ecosystem services regulate, support, and provide environmental as well as cultural benefits to the world around us. Plants can curb erosion, hold back desertification, and temper the effects of storms. Healthy nature is essential to our well-being and development.

We are also learning how nature can clean up the atmosphere from the excess carbon dioxide humanity has historically released.

Growing trees and other biomass can absorb and potentially isolate large quantities of carbon, at least in the short term, as well as producing many other social, economic and environmental benefits. Approaches such as biochar, and better land management, can make the soil more carbon rich for years and may improve their productivity.

But we must also be careful not to overstate some of these approaches.

The limits of nature

While nature may be able to play a massive role in helping us out of this crisis, we must beware of the lure of instant solutions, or of assuming that nature-based approaches are free of consequences.

Large-scale changes in land use have big effects on the communities and cultures that depend on them and may have environmental, biodiversity and water resource implications. And nature-based approaches take time, which we are running short of.

The scale of the challenge ahead may simply be too big to assume nature, with a helping hand from humans, can do it all.

Over the past century and a half, humanity has extracted and burned more than 100 billion barrels of oil; a substance that began to form naturally millions of years ago.

In the years shortly before the Industrial Revolution, there were about 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere – a level that had been relatively consistent for most of human civilisation. Today we have reached a level not seen since the Pliocene, 2.6 million years ago. And the number continues to rise.

The notion that purely natural approaches can undo enough of this damage, without any negative consequence, to avoid 1.5°C, or even 2°C, is widely questioned by scientists.

Assessing risk against risk

The evidence suggests there are no risk-free solutions left to address the crises that faces us – including nature-based approaches.

It is likely the world will need a full range of options, including biological and technological, all with costs and trade-offs, as well as benefits. The challenge is to better understand those risks, and how they stack up against other risks and benefits, in order to take better decisions.

This also includes decisions about new approaches, such as solar radiation modification (SRM), which are being proposed to reflect sunlight back into space, to lower temperatures.

Some of these could help protect nature, by reducing heat stress.

We are seeing right now, for example, efforts in Australia to explore the potential of marine cloud brightening (one form of SRM), to protect parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

But SRM approaches could also bring not only considerable gains but also potentially big risks, and costs, to nature, which would need to be  addressed before we take any action.

All of this requires governance – by many stakeholders, including but not limited to governments. To assess risks against other risks, and to ensure that people everywhere can participate in learning, understanding and making choices.

Such governance processes take time.

And even in these times of COVID-19 restrictions, there’s no time left to lose. We have already seen new climate records broken around the world this year, and expect more to follow.

So on this World Environment Day, let’s resolve to work together to help nature to help us. It’s Time for Nature.

But let us also do so in a way that doesn’t hide from the seriousness of our situation, and the limits of nature’s ability to respond.

Hard choices lie ahead, and we have to confront them in all their complexity. We do not have the luxury to do otherwise.

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