Towards healthy ecosystems in 2019

Protesters outside the COP 24 Summit in Katowice, Poland, December 2018. Image: Romy Chevallier

I spent the early part of December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, witnessing the complex discussions on climate change unfold at COP24.

This was my sixth UN climate conference. As always, it has been quite disheartening to watch a process that requires 197 countries to agree on a single global climate agreement, whilst each defending their own national context and capabilities. Realpolitik at play!

A big stumbling block at COP24 was the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’, that confirmed the urgency needed to address both climate change mitigation and adaptation globally. The disagreement began in the first few days of the COP with the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia refusing to ‘welcome’ the IPCC‘s 1.5 degree temperature target, but only ‘noting’ it. This ‘controversial’ report calls for a more progressive and ambitious temperature target, requiring a drastic transformation of our economic growth systems and the way we live and eat. On top of that, the impacts of climate change will be borne disproportionately by the developing world – countries whose communities depend directly on natural resources, and that lack the ability to cope under their current socio-economic stresses.

The African position at COP24

At COP24, the African common position was put forward by the African Group of Negotiators. The Group’s common denominator is for adaptation to be on a par with mitigation, and for more ambitious temperature targets to be achieved, in line with the recommendations of maintaining a 1.5 degree increase from pre-industrial times. Immediate action is crucial for Africa, because many of the world’s most vulnerable regions are located in Africa. Like in previous years, the African Group wanted more predictable and adequate financing to support resilience building, technology transfer and capacity development. At a minimum, African negotiators have been urging developed countries to ramp up climate finance by $100 billion annually by 2020 for developing countries. However, these funds are not materialising, causing huge frustration amongst African negotiators.

By now, the big majority of African countries have submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, highlighting their pathways for climate action. Many of these NDCs include specific reference to their most vulnerable natural resource sectors, including agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries and the like.

An ecosystem approach to adapt to climate change

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s most biologically diverse and productive natural ecosystems, with extensive tropical forests, drylands, coral reef systems, mangrove forests, peatlands and wetlands. If well-managed, these ecosystems can provide direct protection measures against climate impacts, such as buffering vulnerable communities against storm surge, saline intrusion and coastal erosion. In addition, these ecosystems offer other non-market benefits that support the sustainable development agenda through increased food supply, carbon storage, livelihood diversification and water filtration.

Given the need for effective strategies that allow societies to adapt to climate vulnerability, ecosystem-based solutions are gaining more traction. The term Ecosystem-based Adaptation, or EbA, was coined by the UN Convention for Biological Diversity in 2009. It aims to support communities to adapt to life in a less predictable climate system, based on the preservation of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. In practice, this can happen through the restoration of terrestrial or coastal forested areas or through engineering projects that ‘build with nature’ instead of purely static hard infrastructure. EbA promotes investments in ‘green capital’ through sustainable management and restoration of ecosystems. It also seeks to strengthen the governance and policy frameworks that direct the management of these resources. Concretely, it requires community-based, multi-stakeholder dialogue to adapt to climate change.

Ecosystem-based Adaptation is quickly becoming an important component of the Paris Agreement: 65% of the signatory countries include reference to nature-based solutions and actions often include ecosystem-based solutions in their NDCs. This is particularly true for the least developed countries that rely directly on natural resources for their livelihoods. However, the levels of integration and awareness of EbA in Africa differs substantially per country. While the Seychelles, Madagascar and South Africa refer to ecosystem-orientated visions for adaptation, Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique do not make any references to marine and coastal ecosystems in their national adaptation plans.

To bare testament to the ramping up of political will to restore landscapes across Africa, this year, 27 African countries committed to restoring 111 hectares of degraded land as part of their African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative and the Bonn Challenge. To make this possible, 12 financial partners committed approximately USD $1.5 billion, and almost 30 partners are providing technical support.

Challenges to address this year

However, the degradation of these crucial habitats has continued unabated, and human pressure and economic activities are currently eroding their capacity to deliver vital natural services. There is a range of institutional, policy, governance and finance related issues that make the realisation of Ecosystem-based Adaptation challenging. This needs to be addressed in 2019, including the improvement of scientific data and building the business case for nature-based solutions to climate change. The integration of these approaches into the wider policy discourse should also be encouraged. More dedicated funding is needed from public as well as private sources. It will be important to draw lessons from Ecosystem-based Adaptation projects that have been successfully financed by national budgeting processes, public–private partnerships, and payments for environmental services. In addition, African governments need further capacity building to access climate finance more broadly through the Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund.

Healthy natural systems play a crucial role in supporting climate resilience. However, so far ecosystems are inadequately represented in national and regional climate and development responses. Countries’ NDCs should provide a vehicle to strengthen the role of nature-based solution in climate resilience within national and sectoral policies. At COP24, after two weeks of intensive discussions, nearly 200 governments agreed on a Rulebook to implement the Paris Agreement. This set of guidelines stresses the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation and their integration into national policies and strategies. This is an important step forward towards achieving healthy ecosystems in Africa.

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