We have long known that the destruction of ecosystems rich in wildlife, such as forests, wetlands and mangroves emits carbon dioxide. In fact, almost a quarter (23%) of global emissions stems from agriculture, forests and other land-use changes. Carbon emissions from tropical forests last year alone were more than double the emissions form all cars on the road in the US.
Deforestation is to land-use what coal is to energy. It is the worst offender and highest emitter in its sector. In other words, the Paris Goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees is simply unachievable without halting and reversing the loss of nature. The flipside, for nature, is that climate change is one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss. So, the loss and degradation of nature and climate change and inextricably linked, and neither can be tackled in isolation.
In recent years, nature has gained traction as a possible solution to climate change. Estimates vary for the scale of emissions reductions that nature can deliver, but the latest scientific studies suggest that land-based measures, such as reduced deforestation, ecosystem restoration and improved agricultural practices could reduce 8-13.8 GtCO2eq/yr between 2020 and 2050 cost-effectively, amounting to 20-30% of the total mitigation needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.
But nature does so much more than reduce emissions. Over 90% of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people depend on forests for their livelihoods. Their healthcare needs are mostly met by medicines extracted from natural sources. Healthy ecosystems make communities more resilient to climate impacts and deliver essential services such as water provision, pollination, nutrients, and even provide a buffer against zoonotic diseases. In sum, nature should not be viewed solely through a climate lens.
Despite nature’s significance to climate change, it is not included in the UNFCCC negotiations. At least, not explicitly. The Paris Agreement includes a clause on ecosystem integrity in the preamble, and Article 5 of the Agreement sets out the importance of conserving and enhancing sinks of carbon (such as forests). However, no formal mechanisms exist in the process that truly reflect the scale of nature’s contribution or that guide countries’ actions towards better stewardship of the natural world. Even worse, current carbon accounting rules under the Convention obscure enormous volumes of emissions from practices such as burning biomass for energy and the forest definition used does distinguish between forests and monoculture plantations.
So, what can COP26 deliver for nature?
The incoming UK COP26 Presidency has made Nature a key theme of the conference. This is long overdue but hugely welcome, and presents a unique opportunity to position forests, land-use and nature as central to the climate solution. But it is essential that this is not used as a delay or substitute to urgent decarbonisation in the energy sector. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground.
COP26 is an opportunity to make progress for nature on four fronts:
Countries must recognize the crucial role played by nature in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C and supporting adaptation. The final COP26 decision text must acknowledge that keeping 1.5 alive will not be possible without protecting and restoring nature at scale. Countries should better reflect nature’s contributions in their Nationally Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans and Long-Term Strategies.
Countries must respect and uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Local Communities. Indigenous Peoples’ and Traditional Local Communities’ land rights should be recognised, and they should be compensated and supported for the range of ecosystem services they provide, and their leaders and organisations should be supported and protected.
COP26 must send a market signal that deforestation and other nature-destroying, emissions-intensive activities are bad business. Investors should take note that they risk stranding assets by association with such activities. Policy and markets must align around a new minimum standard for agriculture that excludes all deforestation and conversion.
A step-change indirect investment in nature. Forests receive an estimated 3% of climate finance, and this must change. Finance for nature is off by roughly an order of magnitude, and both public and private finance sources will need to step up to close this gap.
The good news is that COP26 may deliver on at least some of the points listed above. World leaders are expected to announce an initiative to halt deforestation, alongside new funding from public and private sources to protect tropical forests . In a separate effort, the Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue, co-chaired by the UK and Indonesia, for the first time brings key commodity producer and consumer countries together to discuss voluntary measures to reduce commodity-driven measures, including through trade.
Inevitably, however, there will be a lot of work left to do. Work to ensure that the pledges aren’t empty promises that go unfulfilled. Work to revise accounting rules and definitions. Work to translate words into credible, transformational action, that doesn’t leave Indigenous People or smallholder farmers behind. And work to ensure that these solutions are genuinely nature-positive, and leave biodiversity better off than it would have been otherwise. Let us hope that COP26 will mark the beginning of this inevitable shift to just, green and wildlife-rich societies.