Nature-based solutions can drag down global GHG emissions

China’s leadership of global biodiversity talks has seen greater emphasis on tackling environmental crises using natural solutions

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A forest ranger inspects mangroves at a nature reserve in Danzhou City, Hainan Province. Mangroves are one of a number of nature-based solutions to the climate crisis (image: Alamy)

Nature-Based Solutions, or NBS, are actions to protect and sustainably manage natural ecosystems, a crucial element in rising to numerous social and environmental challenges, especially the climate crisis.

Nature-based solutions can mitigate some 12 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, contributing a third of what is needed by 2030 to keep global average temperature rise on course for less than 2C, according to the UN’s Global Compact.

They are essential in helping countries meet that Paris target, decarbonise their economies and build resilience.

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...nature-based solutions can sequester 12 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually

“Many countries and regions are suffering from the impact of climate change and we need to take actions to enhance cooperation to encourage ambition and transparency,” Ma Aimin, deputy director general of China’s National Center for Climate Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), told the UN’s climate conference in Madrid in December.

China is seeking to build support for NBS as it hosts crunch talks to protect biodiversity, known as COP15, in Kunming later this year. The first draft of a new set of 20 conservation goals, to replace the unmet Aichi targets, was released on January 12 and notes: "Biodiversity, and the benefits it provides, is fundamental to human well-being and a healthy planet."

NBS feature in a number of the proposed new targets. As well as mitigating around 30% of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, nature benefits people worldwide by improving nutrition, providing clean water, and contributing to greater resilience against natural disasters, the document says.

“[China] has supported the [NBS] workstream with great success,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of Climate & Energy Global Practice at WWF. “I hope we can define new and more effective targets at COP15 in Kunming,” he told Diálogo Chino.

Nature-based solutions in China

Governments, NGOs and civil society are working together to raise targets and commitments on climate but there is more to do, according to Ma.

“We need to scale up the nationally determined contributions [countries’ national climate plans] for mitigation, resilience and adaptation in key areas such as restoration of forests, agriculture, food security, and protection of biodiversity. We also need climate governance and to promote green finance incentives,” he said.

One example of NBS in China is the conservation of mangroves, which capture carbon and protect coastlines from erosion and storm surges. It is one of a number of natural marine solutions to a heating planet. Most of China’s mangroves cling to the coasts of southern provinces Guandgong, Guangxi and Hainan.

Mangrove restorations have been conducted “spontaneously” since the 1950s by local communities in South China, according to Chen Guangcheng from China’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Since the first national mangrove reserve was created in Hainan in the 1980’s, China now has 52 protected areas, covering 15,944 mangroves.

We don’t want to see China exporting obsolete technology but clean, green technology

Wang Yi, vice president of the Institute of Science and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said a bottom-up approach is crucial in order to share and build best practices on natural climate solutions.

Wang also advocates what he calls a “greener value chain”, lessening the impacts of food and forest products, including their processing and transport footprints.

Pulgar-Vidal said indigenous stewardship of natural resources is vital for the advance of NBS. “Now it is clear that protected areas are a key element, and the management forests by indigenous people [is] showing just how strong it can be to bring climate solutions that are based on nature.”

The new draft targets for the protection of biodiversity recognise the importance of traditional knowledge and practice in managing ecosystems and in sharing the benefits of genetic resources.

Pulgar-Vidal said he was sure China is prioritising NBS and would like to see related initiatives feature in the next Five-Year development plan (2021-2025), along with climate and biodiversity considerations in trade along the Belt and Road Initiative.

“We don’t want to see China exporting obsolete technology but clean, green technology,” he said.

Sustainable trade

Chinese authorities and companies are also mindful of the need to improve sustainability when importing timber from tropical forests.

Su Haiyin of China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration said the country can play “an active role in global forest governance and addressing illegal logging.”

Chinese companies are under pressure to “adjust and restructure” to a legal and sustainable timber trade with new requirements put forward by the government and new demands from the public, he said.

Chinese demand for South American beef is rising and is linked with deforestation. Some producers are embracing more sustainable farming methods that integrate livestock and conservation, such as agroforestry, while others are marketing low-carbon products to eco-conscious Chinese.

André Guimarães, executive director of the Brazilian Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), said his country has great potential for more environmentally friendly agriculture that protects the Amazon rainforest, home to 15% of the planet’s biodiversity.

“Brazil plays an important role in global food, climate and water security. Our agriculture represents more than 20% of the country’s GDP (mostly cattle ranching, soy and cereals). Brazil is the second largest food exporter, feeding 1.2 billion people every day,” Guimarães said.

we have huge room for intensification of pastureland and the beef industry

Yet land use change and agribusiness are responsible for 70% of GHG emissions in Brazil, the world’s seventh largest emitter. On average, Brazil produces less than one head of cattle per hectare of pasture.

“This is extremely low, we have huge room for intensification of pastureland and the beef industry. The forest code is not yet fully implemented and it is fundamental in our legislation to maintain forests on private land,” he said.

90%

of deforestation in Brazil is illegal

This year’s deforestation has increased 29.5% and more than 90% of Brazil’s deforestation is illegal, according to the National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

“It is a major challenge that we have to cope with in the upcoming years. In 2018, about 40% of deforestation occurred on public land and this is a crime,” Guimarães said and pointed to a correlation between protecting tropical forests and to increasing competitiveness in supplying forest-friendly food to the world.

“We do believe that dialogue is the way forward to promote the harmonisation of land use in Brazil. We believe it is possible to produce and export more and, at the same time, to conserve and protect natural resources, particularly tropical forests,” he said.

As well as market signals, political will is necessary to improve conservation in trade, according to Pulgar-Vidal, who pointed to the benefits of China’s recent ivory ban.

“That is the kind of political signal we are seeking [in order] to be effective in the management of nature. Not only for climate purposes but also for nature itself.”