Climate for Life

Protected areas should be seen as natural solution to help mitigate climate change
Climate for Life
Representational Pic

Shah Masood et al.

The year Twenty21 which went by has been the year of COVID-19. All the while, climate change impacts and extreme events persist, undeterred by the pandemic. The year twenty21 has been one of the warmest years on record. It was not only the year of the pandemic, it was also the year of intensifying climate impacts. Floods, droughts and storms affected over 50 million people of the world. Wildfires devastated forests and communities. Plagues of locust swarms devoured vital crops in good number of countries. We have not heeded these warnings. Based on current pledges under the Paris Agreement, the world is heading for at least a 30C temperature rise this century. If this happens, twenty22 will seem like a walk in the park. Even if we limit global warming to well below 20C, or even 1.50C, developing countries will suffer.

Climate change refers to long-term changes in the average state of the climate and can also be due to natural factors. The rapid changes that have occurred since the middle of the past century, however, have been caused largely by humanity’s emissions of green house gases into the atmosphere. Other human activities also affect the climate system, including emissions of pollutants and other aerosols, and changes to the land surface, such as urbanisation and deforestation. The hard truth is that climate change is upon us. Its impacts will intensify. We cannot afford to lose the race to adaptation. Today, there are approximately 200,000 protected areas in the world, which cover around 14.6% of the world’s land and around 2.8% of the oceans. This may sound like significant coverage but given the workload of protected areas it is far from enough. Protected areas provide a host of indispensable services to humanity. World Bank and World life Fund for Nature research estimates that protected areas provide drinking water for one in three of the world’s 100 largest cities, and homes, jobs and livelihoods to millions more.

Land Saving Agriculture

We live, all our lives, less than 25 centimetres away from extinction. For that is the average thickness of the thin dusting of top soil that is all that stands between us and a barren planet, and on which we utterly depend. And yet we abuse it recklessly. The challenge for agriculture is huge---we have to double agricultural production in the coming years if we are to feed the growing world population. But agriculture can also be one of humanity’s most environmentally damaging activities. For example, agriculture is a threat to 70 per cent of the 35 vulnerable ecosystems. Livestock affects about 30 per cent. Seventy per cent of all agricultural land is used to produce livestock. We can increase this a bit at the expense of rainforests, but clearly we can’t keep using resources this way and certainly will not be able to meet the growing demand for animal proteins in the classical way.

Today, scientists and farmers are together exploring ways of improving crop and animal husbandry and cropping techniques, minimising water requirements, breeding disease resistant plants and reducing fertiliser use. Of particular interest are developing among the world farmers because they have the greatest opportunity of increasing their yields sustainably. Whether it’s the destruction of coral reefs, the clearing of the tropical mangroves, or the slashing and burning of rainforests, the degradation of the planet’s natural habitats and of the biodiversity that thrives within them have become the driving force behind the proliferation of protected areas around the world over the last decade. As a carbon sequestration service, their impact is immense. Protected areas store the same amount of carbon as the tropical rainforests, they keep us healthy by being a source of clean air, as well as of new medicines, and they enhance food security by boosting fisheries and protecting wild relatives of crops.

Protected areas once thought of as little more than wildlife sanctuaries for tourists, are now considered vital buffer between humanity and the impacts of some of the gravest threats facing us, the most notable among them being climate change, along with natural disasters and food insecurity. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) research reveals that while protected areas have increased in number by 58 per cent over the last two decades, and in their extent by 48 per cent, many protected areas face management, governance and financial challenges and half of the world’s most important sites for biodiversity are still unprotected. Essentially, protected areas are protecting us as much as they are protecting the many declining animal and plant species that find safe haven within them. Despite mounting efforts to correct many ecologically destructive trends, our ecosystems continue on a trajectory of degradation, meaning that should “business-as-usual” continue we will increasingly look to protected areas to shield us from the impacts of our relentless assault on the planet. The Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 (GBO4) report, recently launched at the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, provides ample evidence of how our progress is in danger of being overwhelmed by the continued exhaustion of natural capital for unsustainable cycles of economic growth. It tells us that global rates of deforestation and forest degradation are declining but they remain alarmingly high, and are contributing to 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The total area of land remaining in a natural or semi-natural condition, meanwhile, has been showing a downward trend in recent decades, with few signs of a reversal.

People & Climate Change

In 1992, 12-year-old Canadian Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke at the Earth Summit in Rio with eloquence and passion, she appealed to world leaders not as politicians but as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles reminding them that they were there not to protect Earth for the sake of economics or politics, but for those we love. Severn moved her audience to tears and now known as ‘The Girl Who Silenced the World for 6 Minutes.’ The message is familiar: we are taking action, but the pace of progress is not fast enough to mitigate the range of escalating environmental threats that face us, of which habitat loss coupled with biodiversity degradation is one of the most serious concern before all of us. Whether we are improving the governance of protected areas, conserving biodiversity or tackling the threat of climate change, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are all striving to achieve the same objective as a reminder that by uniting our efforts to ensure healthy and productive planetary ecological systems, we can more readily achieve the ultimate shared goal of an inclusive and sustainable future for all. Time is fast running out and the future of people, men, women and children, whole cultures, whole communities, villages, cities and nations are all at stake. Without exception, we all have the moral obligation to do what must be done individually and collectively to ensure the survival of this ------OUR planet.

Climate change is making things even worse. Rising sea levels threaten to impact marine ecosystems, as well as inundate coastlines. Populations of fish are already moving towards the poles, while rising temperatures can also affect reproduction and cause coral bleaching. And carbon dioxide emissions are turning the seas more acidic than they have been for 300 million years, making it harder for shellfish and crustacean to build their shells and possibly making it more difficult for fish to breathe. Protected areas also offer natural defences that help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. They reduce the impact of such disasters as hurricanes, floods and landslides by acting as buffers for communities in the face of climate extremes. Without them, the climate challenge would be even greater. The ocean dominates the planet. It is where most of life on earth exists. What we do to it affects all natural systems. More than half the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by marine fauna. We are fortunately beginning to understand the ocean, not only how it functions, but also the value of life in the sea, not just as a marketable commodity but also for its role in a system that keeps us alive. We are finally catching up with what scientists have been slowly understanding, how our lives totally depend on the network of life that we have mostly regarded as stable forever. It is no longer tenable to exploit it at the level we have done in the past and still expect the ocean to deliver the services it has always delivered.

As it gets hotter, the soil’s ability to recycle organic matter and filter water declines. Changing temperatures, rainfall and wind pattern intensify many forms of land degradation with biodiversity casualties. If we continue to abuse the land and our ecosystems in the face of climate change, it is the world’s poorest who will be, unfairly, the major victims of our inaction. Eighty per percent of the world’s hungry live in rural areas, with 1.5 billion people living on degraded land. The poor rely directly on ecosystems and land for their food, livelihoods, shelter and health. The ramifications of ignoring good land management and thus the world’s poor are huge. The consequences are already visible, and will spread across borders.

Success Stories

There is a need to document and evaluate success stories and assess their impact on ecosystem services. Sharing success stories helps others take similar action for achieving their own goals, or for scaling up their practices. Moreover, there is a great need to clarify the impact of different sustainable land-management practices and adapt and optimize them under different conditions. And there is still a need to raise awareness of the causes, the context and the impacts of appropriate resource use. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation, we have degraded one third of our total arable land to infertility. And over half the remaining agriculture land is on its way, being moderately or severely degraded. When the land dies, instead of switching to rehabilitating it, we move to a fertile area and begin the degradation process again. Nearly one quarter of the world’s plant species are threatened with extinction. Trees are disappearing faster than they can grow. Ground water is being extracted faster than it is replenished. Carbon is being emitted faster than it is absorbed. In this regard, a fundamental question remains to be addressed as how we can adapt our ways of living and definitions of development to include nurturing the natural world that sustains us with clean air, clean water, fertile soils and so much more. Put it simply, how can we create a future that offers a high quality of life to everyone within the limits of this one planet? Consuming the Earth’s resources faster than they renew themselves is no longer an option. We have to work out ways of getting as much more from much less. And we all have a part to play in that through innovation, through new ways of thinking and new ways of living. Challenging............but also exciting.

Shah Masood is a Scientist on Climate Change at FOA Wadura Campus SKUAST-K.

Amtul & Mishal Masood are Science Students.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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