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Wetlands are versatile climate and biodiversity assets: Wetlands International

A wetland in China. Photo: Wetlands International

Research conducted for the World Economic Forum’s Nature and Net Zero report confirms estimates that NCS can provide one-third of the climate mitigation to reach a 1.5 degree and 2 degree Celsius pathway by the year 2030, and at a lower cost than other forms of carbon dioxide removal.

By Salam Rajesh

The potential of wetlands to mitigate climate change and extreme weather events has been neglected for decades, asserts Wetlands International’s chief executive office Jane Madgwick in a communiqué to the media late last month, while stressing that more than a third of the global wetlands have disappeared since the 1970s.

Reasserting that wetlands are versatile climate and biodiversity assets, Jane argues that ‘quantified targets are needed for policy-makers to protect wetlands’. In her own assessment on the best and cheapest way to harness nature for fighting climate change, the Wetlands International CEO’s simple answer is to “protect and restore the world’s wetlands – its bogs and lakes, mangroves and mires, peatlands and rivers, tidal mudflats, and floodplain marshes”.

And what is the best way to counter extreme floods and droughts in a rapidly warming world? Her answer is: “Protecting and restoring wetlands”. Equally interesting is the next query: Which biodiverse ecosystems are disappearing faster than forests but so far have received little attention from the Convention on Biological Diversity, and national governments? Her reply is: “Wetlands again”.

The many ecological benefits provided by the world’s wet places are too often neglected in discussions about both climate change and biodiversity protection and as a result, wetlands continued to be drained and dammed with impunity from the mangroves of South-East Asia to the marshlands of South America and the swamps of Central Africa, says Jane.

By some measures, the world has already lost more than 80 percent of its former wetlands, more than a third disappearing since 1970, and this is a faster rate than for any other major ecosystem, the Wetlands International CEO stressed. Drains and dams have done far more damage to nature than chainsaws, Jane opines while saying that the continued drainage of peatlands alone is responsible for more than 5 percent of global carbon emissions.

Wetlands act as sponges that ameliorate droughts by storing water and releasing it to maintain river flows long after the rains cease, and they protect against floods, too. Restoring lost wetlands is vital to stemming the cost of climate disasters. To achieve this, for instance, Indonesia intends to block drains to re-wet 2.5 million hectares of dried peatlands and to bring back 600,000 hectares of mangroves that were cleared for coastal prawn farms.

Noting that at the recent Glasgow climate conference (Scotland, 2021) nations lined up to pledge an end to deforestation and to start restoring forests, the Wetlands International CEO is quite unhappy that there were few equivalent promises for ending wetland loss, or re-wetting drained land, even though wetlands are extremely important natural carbon sinks.

Jane asserts that much the same has been happening at the latest negotiations in Geneva for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity even though wetlands contain more biodiversity than forests, holding 40 percent of the planet’s species on just 7 percent of the land.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of climate change highlighted the vulnerability of ecosystems such as wetlands to high temperatures, fires and drought, and warned that their loss will amplify climate change by releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases. But, Jane asserts, the IPCC had much less to say about the vital role that wetlands can play in protecting humans and wildlife from climate change.

The science is clear that wetlands are effective natural solutions for a range of global problems, but what is missing are quantified targets to galvanise policy-makers and hold them to account, Jane says while proposing that a minimum of 30 percent of the surviving wetlands be put under formal management for conservation and that the planning systems ensure that all existing intact and wilderness wetlands are retained, while all others are managed with their biodiversity value to the fore.

Additionally, Wetlands International proposes that at least 20 percent of wetlands already degraded by human activity should be restored by the year 2030 in line with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030).

The objective should include at least 10 million hectares of peatland and 20 percent gain in mangrove cover, Jane says, emphasizing that tidal flats should be increased by at least 10 percent by removing sea walls, and at least half of the 7000 wetland sites identified as critical to migrating birds should be managed with their needs on priority basis.

The world needs protection and restoration of water systems as a whole, not just specific wetlands, Jane asserts, while saying that rivers feed – and are fed by – wetlands all the way from their source to the ocean. Rivers are connectors across landscapes, and sustain other ecosystems. Targets for protecting forests and oceans will fail if the world do not protect and restore wetlands, the CEO emphasized.

Stressing that rejuvenation of rivers should be latched up by the world community on priority basis, Jane says it is vital that all the world’s surviving free-flowing rivers should be protected from dams, levees and sand mining, and that, where possible, managed river flows mimic nature.

Wetlands International stresses that Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), that is, the investment in conservation and land management programs that increase carbon storage and reduce carbon emissions, offer an important way of addressing both crises and generate additional environmental and social benefits.

Research conducted for the World Economic Forum’s Nature and Net Zero report confirms estimates that NCS can provide one-third of the climate mitigation to reach a 1.5 degree and 2 degree Celsius pathway by the year 2030, and at a lower cost than other forms of carbon dioxide removal.

The report builds on the recommendations from the Taskforce for Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, and identifies six actions to accelerate the scale-up of high-quality NCS and unlock markets through the combined efforts of business leaders, policymakers and civil society.

To foster collaboration, in 2019 the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development came together to establish the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance to convene public and private stakeholders with the purpose of identifying opportunities and barriers to investment into NCS.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])

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