How could a COP28 climate deal advance protection of nature?

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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How could a COP28 climate deal advance protection of nature?

LOGGING. An agent of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources inspects a tree extracted from the Amazon rainforest, during an operation to combat deforestation, in Placas, Para State, Brazil, January 20, 2023.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

From forests and oceans to peatlands, nature acts as a huge carbon sink that can absorb planet-heating emissions, scientists say

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – With efforts to better protect nature seen as crucial to meeting global climate goals, and rising temperatures a key threat to the natural world, more formally joining up nature and climate protection efforts could speed effective action on both, backers said at COP28 this week.

As the United Nations climate talks enter their final week in Dubai, Colombia and Germany called in an open letter for the UN climate summit’s outcome to formally support efforts to combat land degradation, reverse biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems, among other nature protection measures.

More efforts should also be made to join up financing for the two agendas, the letter said.

That call was backed by other nature-protection bodies and organizations, with Grethel Aguilar, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), saying looking at the two efforts as separate made little sense.

“As one planet, we cannot keep dividing this conversation,” she said.

The connection between nature and climate is clear in Colombia, said its environment minister Susana Muhamad, with deforestation threatening the Latin American nation’s emissions goals and communities suffering from flooding and landslides as trees disappear.

“Where we are seeing the worst effects of climate change is exactly where nature has been depleted,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at the Dubai conference.

Muhamad said forest losses in river basins had left people vulnerable to extreme weather impacts, particularly in a year of record-high temperatures driven by global warming and the El Niño weather pattern.

The other COP

Last year in Montreal, a major deal was struck among countries at a UN COP15 biodiversity summit aimed at stopping and reversing the destruction of nature and biodiversity.

It included a goal to protect at least 30% of land and seas by 2030.

From forests and oceans to peatlands, nature acts as a huge carbon sink that can absorb planet-heating emissions, scientists say. Natural areas, from coral reefs to mangroves, also act as a buffer to protect people from worsening impacts such as floods and heat waves.

On Saturday, December 9, “Nature Day” at the Dubai negotiations – presidents of both the COP28 climate summit and the COP15 nature summit will meet in an effort to enhance collaboration on the two agendas.

Negotiators at COP28 are also engaged in a “Global Stocktake” aimed at determining how well countries are doing in limiting global warming, and how country plans should strengthen to keep progress on track.

The stocktake’s draft text so far includes language to address the “interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.”

But Shirley Matheson of WWF International said it was concerning that the text had no references to “nature-based solutions” – which include measures such as restoring forests to meet both climate and biodiversity goals.

“As things stand, the failure to include nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based solutions will be a huge missed opportunity to bring together action for nature, climate, and people,” said Matheson, the conservation group’s Global Stocktake lead.

Steven Guilbeault, the environment minister of Canada – which co-hosted the COP15 nature talks with China – said momentum has built on combining the agendas since the Glasgow climate summit in 2021 and especially since the global biodiversity framework was agreed in Montreal.

“It used to be the case in this forum that the only time we talked about nature was to generate carbon credits,” he said in an interview, referring to the UN climate summits.

Guilbeault said Canada is channeling dollars usually earmarked for concrete or asphalt infrastructure into parks, which help absorb excess water during flooding, and has committed to spend at least 20% of its international climate finance on nature-based solutions.

Governments are expected under UN processes to work on both their climate and their biodiversity plans next year, he added – timing that could provide opportunities for more crossover.

Fossil fuel phaseout?

One central debate playing out at COP28 is whether to include language to “phase out” or “phase down” fossil fuels beyond coal in the final decision, due next week.

Whether language on limiting fossil fuel use is included could have a significant impact on whether climate change can be limited and therefore how effective nature protection efforts can be, government officials and others said.

The IUCN’s Aguilar called phasing out the use of fossil fuels a “must” – and said no other options should be on the table.

“If we don’t achieve that phaseout of fossil fuels, this planet will be in a very, very difficult position,” she said.

Canada’s Guilbeault said he wants to see COP28 back a phaseout of “unabated” fossil fuels – those whose carbon dioxide emissions are not captured and permanently stored.

But he said he believed such reductions of unabated fuels are “going to happen, whether or not we put it in the language of the text,” noting that Canada, the fourth largest global producer of oil and gas, has “a big responsibility” to cut emissions.

Meanwhile, Colombia, which relies on fossil fuels including oil and coal for 60% of its exports, became at COP28 the first big economy to join a campaign to stop all expansion of fossil fuels.

“We are already conscious that if we don’t start this transition now, in 10, 15 years our markets will shrink and we will have an economic crisis,” Muhamad said.

She added that the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial times was “an environmental limit, not a goal.”

Scientists warn that above 1.5°C, a range of potentially irreversible global “tipping points” – such as loss of the planet’s coral reefs – becomes likely.

“If we overshoot that, what are the adaptation capacities, really?” Muhamad asked. “Will nature survive?” –

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