Healthy ecosystems – a bridge between climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts

Wednesday, 11 November, 2015 - 13:33

As the final countdown begins to the UN climate summit in Paris, some key issues are coming to the fore. One that I have a keen interest in is the need for greater links between climate change mitigation and adaptation, with experience from India showing the many benefits that this can offer, particularly in relation to natural ecosystems.

While mitigation focuses on the causes of climate change by reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or increasing absorption of these gases, adaptation addresses the impacts of climate change, and the need for people and natural systems to adjust to them.

Taking a more combined approach has great potential to create more efficient and cost-effective climate policies, particularly in areas such as low carbon development, climate-smart agriculture, bioenergy, and so on.

Although it is not yet possible to recommend an ‘optimal mix’ of adaptation and mitigation, as people around the world are impacted differently, a strong link between the two may be provided by nature-based solutions involving forestry, agriculture or land restoration.

Both mitigation and adaptation can be based on the sustainable management of ecosystems. A typical rural landscape consists of forest, agriculture and livestock, sustainably managed for water, food and energy production. Adopting a holistic landscape approach can increase the resilience of ecosystems and thereby the resilience of rural communities.

The global transition of people from rural to urban environments demands more land and resources, raising more challenges for environmental management, and can mean a greater emphasis on mitigation than adaptation. But there are ways of guiding the evolution to resilient rural landscapes, or to climate-smart urban societies by using a strong base of nature-based solutions and the right mix of adaptation and mitigation.

For example, fuelwood harvesting in the entire Himalayan region is not only degrading forests but incomplete burning has generated black carbon (a key contributor to climate change), contributing to melting glaciers and sea level rise. Communities are struggling to get access to a clean, decentralised energy source that can meet their daily needs, one that is cost effective, and helps maintain their landscapes. Studies by IUCN show that using biogas energy at a landscape level can help pave the way to energy security, addressing mitigation and adaptation simultaneously. It can also help secure livelihoods and maintain the region’s biodiversity.

Such an approach has produced many other benefits. Organic waste is now used as fertilizer, there has been a reduction in black carbon, an increase in agricultural output, improved livelihoods, reduced pressure on forests, and promotion of agroforestry. Importantly, the physical demands on women have also been reduced and their health has improved.

Other examples from India and beyond show that various partners are seeing the many benefits of combined mitigation-adaptation projects, including the private sector. I believe business – the engine of growth – should be far more engaged in the climate debate and in climate-proof development. I’m encouraged to see an increasing flow of funding that connects community, business and government in landscape management in developing countries.

In India, businesses are coming forward to fund restoration and strengthen their value chains. Forest landscape restoration in the foothills of Yamuna Nagar district in Haryana and Delhi Metro Rail are examples of climate-resilient ecosystem management and climate-friendly development respectively. Using these types of model, we can grow economically and stem further environmental degradation at the same time.

The success of these examples shows that countries need to focus more on a holistic approach to climate change. All Parties to the climate convention, in the run-up to the Paris summit, should review their current policies and programmes on adaptation and mitigation, and their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), keeping in mind the needs of vulnerable communities and the potential of sustainable ecosystem management.

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