Guest Article #12

Addressing Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss and Poverty through Sustainable Ecosystem Management

The world's ecosystems are currently being degraded at an alarming rate and this is occurring at a time when we are facing trends of increasing global temperature, hunger, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss, compounded by a global population of 7 billion, which is to hit 9 billion in the next 40 years. Biodiversity is being lost and we face the uncertainty of how climate change will affect us. The Green Economy, Climate Change, Ecosystems, Biodiversity and Poverty are inextricably connected. Changes to natural ecosystems influence both the climate and people's ability to cope with some of its detrimental/adverse impacts. In return, climate change and people's responses to it affect ecosystems and biodiversity. Teasing apart these strands clearly shows that conserving and managing biodiversity can help natural systems and vulnerable people cope with a shifting global climate. This is a problem that affects all of humanity as ecosystems underpin all economic activity and are the foundation for human wellbeing. Without secure, healthy and fully functional ecosystems, all sections of society, rich and poor, will face substantial detriment in the future, through loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services and collapse of economies.

To ensure that development proceeds along paths resilient to these harsh realities, an approach that is cost effective is crucially needed – one that has potential to ensure a transformational change from the current socially inequitable, environmentally damaging wealth creation-based society to an equitable wellbeing. Our economy operates on an unsustainable basis as it does not fully account for environmental externalities. Without fully reflecting the value of natural assets and sharing the benefits of ecosystems more equitably, human interaction with them will remain unsustainable and degradation is likely to accelerate, leading to the potential collapse of important ecosystem functions and services. This threatens the security of all sectors of society, regardless of political ideology, culture or stage of development. This is particularly the case for the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world, especially in Africa, who strongly depend on natural ecosystems for their livelihoods.

What can be done?  The global and local case for action

Changes in priorities and active and adaptive management will be needed to maintain biodiversity under a changing climate. In some places, active management will take the form of further improving protection from human interference, while in others conservation may need to include interventions in species and ecosystem processes that are stronger and more hands-on than today's. In all cases, biodiversity values must be actively considered in the face of climate change and in the context of competing uses for land or sea. This requires an ongoing process to anticipate how ecosystems will respond to a changing climate while interacting with other environmental modifiers that change the dynamic interactions between species and therefore ecosystem functions. The ability to anticipate such change will always be incomplete and far from perfect, so any management actions must be within a framework that is robust yet flexible and adaptive. Most importantly, the actions taken must function within environmental limits imposed by resource availability and renewal rates. As such, environmental thresholds need to be established to ensure that society remains within them in order to achieve sustainability. Thus, there is need for the formulation and evaluation of economic and policy mechanisms based on four principle criteria: long-term environmental effectiveness; equity; cost effectiveness; and institutional compatibility of the policy combinations. A number of UNEP papers elaborate on these themes.

A recent study, titled "Putting Ecosystem Management in the Vision of Africa's Development: Towards a Sustainable Green Economy,” demonstrates the foundational significance of ecosystems for human well-being in the African region. It highlights some of the key policy challenges and opportunities in ecosystem management, and makes some recommendations for enhancing capacity of policy makers in the region.

In another paper, titled “Role of Ecosystems in Developing a Sustainable Green Economy,” the authors  discuss how investing in ecosystems can bring about benefits at the local as well as global level, e.g. in helping communities adapt to climate change (ecosystem based adaptation), while at the same time enhancing people's livelihoods. Ecosystems and the benefits they provide (e.g. climate regulation, food security, freshwater supply, disaster risk reduction) are fundamental to supporting people's livelihoods and other life on Earth. Ecosystems play an unequivocal and increasingly important role in both ecosystem-based mitigation (carbon sequestration and storage), and ecosystem-based adaptation (i.e. nature-based societal adaptation to climate change impacts).

In another article, titled “Restoring the Natural Foundation to Sustain a Green Economy,” the focus is on what to do in the transition period of the next 20 years after Rio+20 is crafted.  A range of solutions using the Ecosystem Management approach to tackle the many pressures we are facing is highlighted. Considering the fundamental basis for life on Earth, it is inconceivable that we could progress without maintaining the health of Earth's diverse ecosystems. It thus falls to all people, as individuals, communities, the private sector and representatives of nations, to face up to the challenges ahead and use the best available solutions with commitment and understanding, to ensure a stable transition to a Green Economy.

Another paper, titled “Ecosystem Management: Tomorrow's Approach to Enhancing Food Security under a Changing Climate,” argues that global food security under a changing climate is possible if the vital role of healthy ecosystems is recognized. The researchers suggest that an ecosystem-based approach must be integrated with other measures to tackle food security under climate change, to protect ecosystems and supply the essential services on which humanity depends.

The Way Forward

Biodiversity and ecosystem services are the foundation of many successful adaptation strategies, especially for poor people. They can also deliver climate change mitigation benefits. But meeting all these objectives can be difficult. Adaptation activities in one sector can compromise those in another, as well as mitigation, biodiversity or poverty objectives. Decisions should therefore be based on good science, and an understanding of the full environmental-economic trade-offs. At the very least, climate change solutions should aim to avoid damaging biodiversity and ecosystem services, increasing inequity or exacerbating poverty. At a global scale, decisions need to be made within the context of an underpinning rational where environmental protection takes precedence. This requires a fundamental shift in the structure of the world's current economic models, where resource consumption is the primary driver that has led to environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and hence unsustainable societies. Instead, there is a need to develop economic models that reverse the market failures of the existing models by fully valuing the environment. They must be able to balance the capacity of the worlds' ecosystems to provide essential services with the basic needs of all sections of human society in an equitable way. Such models need to foster greater individual and global collective responsibility and facilitate a shared equity of resource use. The synergies between objectives need to be better recognised by governments, who must facilitate change by supporting both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Similarly, businesses and communities need to take advantage of the economic benefits that the ecosystems-based adaptation approach will bring. Only by collectively addressing the multiple issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty in an integrative way will synergistic solutions be developed.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Richard Munang

Policy Advisor & Programme Coordinator

Climate Change Adaptation & Development Programme

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Phone: (+254 20) 762 5727, Email: Richard.Munang@unep.org