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Zoological Society of London

22 September 2021

Landmark article led by ZSL climate and biodiversity experts says that both global emergencies must be tackled in unison to avoid falling short on solutions. 

Leading experts on the ecological impacts of climate change are calling for urgent action to align the climate and biodiversity agendas to ensure that low cost, low risk, low maintenance opportunities to jointly and efficiently address these two environmental issues are prioritised and implemented. 

A new, landmark study led by conservation and science charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London), has been published today (Wednesday 22 September 2021) in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The sobering study states that treating the global climate change and biodiversity crises separately is, in many situations, ineffectual, and at worst, deepening the problem. 

A seagrass meadow
© Benjamin Jones, Stockholm University

The study, titled Time to integrate global climate change and biodiversity science-policy agendas, stresses that an integrated approach is essential to tackling the two global challenges and to avoid falling short on solutions. It identifies where research could be improved in five important areas of ecological work, including some of the most well-known Nature-based Solutions (NbS), such as protecting landscapes and seascapes and restoring ecosystems.

While the overwhelming scientific consensus is that humanity is facing a climate crisis, biodiversity is also declining across the world at unprecedented rates. The 2020 Living Planet Index recorded a decline of 68% in average species population abundance since 1970. Humankind’s responsibility to protect vital ecosystems and species goes beyond ethics, as this loss erodes the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.  

Published ahead of COP26, the team argue that bolstering scientific research is not enough to drastically improve humanity’s odds when dealing with both global issues, and that major systemic upheavals are needed.

A school of fish and a coral reef

ZSL Senior Research Fellow Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, an expert on the impacts of global environmental change on biodiversity, who led the study, said: “The level of interconnectedness between the climate change and biodiversity crises is high and should not be underestimated. This is not just about climate change impacting biodiversity; it is also about the loss of biodiversity deepening the climate crisis.

“Reduced species abundance, local extinctions, as well as the rapid degradation and/or loss of ecosystems such as mangroves, tropical forests, peatlands and seagrass are having a major impact on our planet’s ability to store carbon, while reducing nature and people’s ability to adapt to and/or cope with changing climatic conditions.

“One cannot continue to independently manage landscapes, freshwater wetlands and seascapes for biodiversity conservation or climate change mitigation or adaptation, hoping that one will automatically benefit the other. We urgently need to significantly improve the scientific and political integration of the biodiversity and climate change agendas so that win-win situations can be quickly and more easily identified.”  

ZSL Senior Research Fellow Dr Nathalie Pettorelli

The long-anticipated meeting of the United Nations (UN) Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in October presents an ideal window of opportunity for Governments around the world to demonstrate leadership, transparency and accountability to help turn the tide on both climate change and biodiversity. 

ZSL wants to see a solid commitment to nature recovery alongside the many financial, and technological solutions that will be agreed and discussed at COP26. The international conservation charity is urging decision-makers to bring in a widely accepted tracking system for NbS, to help identify the benefits and risks of these to the wider ecological systems that they impact. It also wants to see further protections for ocean and freshwater ecosystems; and for all countries to deliver on their $100bn annual pledge to support the needs of developing nations in efforts to tackle both crises.

Dr Pettorelli concluded: “We need an overhaul of global environmental legislation to better support the conservation of wildlife in times of rapid climatic change.  Funding for the climate and biodiversity crises should be balanced, and harmful financial incentives such as large amounts of annual funding by Governments to fossil fuel exploration, and subsidies for damaging agricultural, forestry or fishing industries, should be consigned to the history books. 

“It is imperative that this window of opportunity is not missed. None of us want to live in the future we are currently building for ourselves.”  

As well as high-level policy change, the study identifies five priority areas of ecological research needed to improve current tactics for addressing the biodiversity and climate emergencies.

Local people practicing Sustainable Fishing in a Locally Managed Marine Area

These include developing a widely accepted approach to assess the benefits that projects aimed at mitigating climate change, bring to biodiversity; methods of tracking ecosystems that are changing their distribution or facing collapse due to the impacts of climate change; and developing ways to predict the impacts of climate change on the effectiveness of NbS. The authors say that all solutions must match the short and long-term scale of both global challenges and that evidence and knowledge must be developed to ensure this. Finally, NbS such as restoration projects and rewilding, must be regularly risk assessed to ensure that they are sustainable, and benefitting the wildlife and communities they intend to serve. 

Professor Jos Barlow of the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University studies forests in the Amazon. He said: “There is growing interest in using forest restoration to mitigate climate change but employing an ad hoc approach risks missing many of the potential co-benefits that this could bring for biodiversity conservation. In many regions, there is already enough data and information to inform decisions and attain these co-benefits – the challenge now is to ensure the necessary dialogue and flow of information between policy makers, practitioners and researchers”. 

ZSL is urging world governments, global corporations and policy makers to put nature at the heart of all decision making. ZSL will be at COP26 in Glasgow, calling on these leaders to make a commitment to jointly tackle the global threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. Support ZSL's world-leading conservation work by donating online.

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