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Rosalind Skillen

We must invest in nature to help tackle the climate crisis

Rosalind Skillen

Advances in technology won’t be enough to protect environment


Stock photo

Stock photo

Stock photo

We cannot solve the climate crisis without first protecting and restoring nature. Beyond removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it, nature-based solutions to climate change hold many benefits that society does not appreciate.

They improve water quality, mitigate flooding and protect valuable ecosystems: all while helping us to meet our climate and biodiversity targets. They are the cheapest, simplest and most scalable solutions to climate change.

Yet despite there being no clear pathway to net zero without supporting biodiversity, nature-based solutions remain severely underfunded. Nature-based solutions currently receive only 2.5% of climate change funding worldwide. Indeed, financial investment in nature-based solutions would need to increase four-fold by 2050 if we want to keep beneath 1.5 degrees of global temperature rise. 

Belfast City Council are already thinking seriously about how we can do this. As part of the ‘One Million Trees’ project, Belfast City Council aims to plant one million trees by 2035. This commitment demonstrates how we need to go beyond simply ‘protecting’ nature, we need to restore it. To successfully tackle the converging climate and nature crises, we need to extract less and plant more.

Belfast City Council’s ‘One Million Trees’ project also shows how, as well as reversing wildlife loss, nature-based solutions hold aesthetic value. They bring life and colour into our city, regenerating our urban landscapes.

Of course, we need to go beyond just planting trees and protecting forests. We need to ensure that multiple types of habitat are protected, such as grasslands, wetlands and peatlands. We need to consider how to restore biodiversity in our oceans as well as on land. We need to protect important habitats, like sea grass, kelp forests, salt marshes and oyster beds: all of which store blue carbon. We need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach when we think about how to restore nature, ensuring that we protect different types of carbon stores as well as multiple habitats.

Sadly, in the UK, we have failed to engage with nature sustainably. Our biodiversity is rapidly declining, and the U.K. now has one of the lowest percentages of natural habitat cover in the world.

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Equally, our reputation as ‘the emerald isle’ means that it can be easy for us to underestimate the impact of the biodiversity crisis on the island of Ireland. Yet, according to research from the Natural History Museum and the RSPB, Northern Ireland sits 12th worst in the world for biodiversity loss out of 240 countries surveyed. The Republic of Ireland is not much better, ranking 13th lowest and only one place ahead of Northern Ireland. A recent report also highlighted that zero of Northern Ireland’s waterways meet water quality standards. Not one of our 496 rivers, lakes and coastal waters achieved a “good overall status”. We need to address this.

We often see public attention directed towards geo-engineering solutions and high-performing technologies. While these technologies can help with carbon capture and CO2 extraction, we need to be directing our attention towards nature.

Technological solutions can be highly innovative and enabling, but words like ‘green hydorgen’, ‘smart grids’ and ‘heat pumps’ mean very little to ordinary people. Even industry-changing technology cannot bring people together in the way that nature does.

Unlike technology, nature-based solutions and projects — involving local communities from their conception to installation — engage our hearts and minds. When we take nature into account, we become better custodians of the planet. We also become better custodians of one another.

Taking ownership of a nature project and spending time outdoors is a deeply emotional process. We demonstrate commitment to the land. We build connections with nature as well as each other. We invest in our shared spaces.

To accelerate global efforts to tackle the climate crisis and reverse biodiversity loss, the private sector must become more involved in implementing nature-based solutions in a regulated way. Some people have raised valid concern over the mingling of nature and markets. In the past, we have certainly seen how private sector funds for nature restoration are simply used as offsets. The legitimacy of companies using mitigation activities, like planting trees, to offset their compliance activities raises a huge question mark. Rather than simply offsetting, companies should firstly align their internal operations and supply chains with science-based biodiversity and nature targets. Offsetting may be an inevitable part of this process, but it cannot justify or atone for highly destructive land practices.

For too long, nature has not been included in the way global economic systems assign value. Nature holds cultural value, or even spiritual value for communities, but not market value. Yet, world leaders are beginning to acknowledge that our understanding of the relationship between nature and the economy needs to change. The idea of ‘natural capital’ should be introduced into our economic systems, and inform our public policy as well as financial decision-making.

Investing in nature is the best investment Northern Ireland could make. While advances in technology and reducing our emissions will bring us closer to solving the climate crisis, they will not be enough. They will not replace the beauty, power and potential of natural systems.

Put simply, there is no substitute for nature.

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