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Adapting Naturally

Director General of IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature

Increasingly we hear about the negative impacts of climate change: some parts of our planet are getting drier, some wetter, most warmer - and many experience greater uncertainty and variation in weather patterns and seasonal change. We need to adapt both to the changes already underway, and to those which we are committed making in the coming decades.

Our inability to predict exact impacts of these changes makes us look for 'no-regrets' options – those that will bring cost-effective benefits under most climate change scenarios. Ecosystem-based adaptation emerges as one such response, providing natural solutions to help both people and nature cope.

Ecosystem-based adaptation may sound like an intricate invention, but in essence it means managing our natural environment in a way that boosts the resilience of local communities to climatic and other changes.

Nor is it an entirely new concept. Throughout human history, societies have adapted to changes in climate conditions by shifting settlements, alternating crops, or transforming their economies and lifestyles. Many of these adaptive solutions have relied on managing the immediate environment, giving people a chance to 'adapt', and nature to 'adjust'.

Today, studies from around the world – from the African Sahel to the Andean highlands – clearly show how climate change affects farming and fisheries, water supplies and carbon cycle, and human and wildlife migration, to name just a few. Resilience – the ability of communities and ecosystems to withstand shocks – is emerging as an increasingly important goal at a time of recurring environment and development crises.

The estimated two billion people who live on less than US$2 a day directly depend on natural resources – and particularly on healthy ecosystems -- for their wellbeing. These ecosystems are now under great pressure from climate change but, if well managed, they can also offer a solution to people who depend on them.

That is the essence of the concept of nature-based solutions, which IUCN coined first in the context of climate negotiations, and increasingly as our overarching response to the biggest challenges facing the planet: from food and energy security to economic development and poverty eradication.

Resilient ecosystems are proven to reduce the impacts of extreme climatic events on the most vulnerable. Mangroves and coral reefs serve as buffers for floods and tsunamis, forests help prevent landslides, wetlands act as sponges that can release water in times of drought. Such natural buffers are often less expensive to install or manage, and often more effective than physical engineering structures, such as dykes, levees, or concrete walls.

Healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean provide up to US$2.2 billion worth of coastal protection to 18,000km2 of beaches. The forests of Andermatt, a major ski destination in Switzerland, provide US$2.5 million of avalanche protection each year. And in Vietnam, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just over US$1 million but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million.

Water is at the centre of many climate change impacts, and is closely linked to the challenge of food security. Farming in Africa's drought-prone regions has always been risky but, with the onset of climate change, producing enough crops to survive until the next harvest is an ever-growing challenge.

The value of Niger's 1,000-plus wetlands for livestock production alone is estimated at US$35 million per year - and they also provide habitat for some 1.8 million birds coming from Europe and Asia to spend the winter in Africa.

The residents of 450 villages in the regions of Casamance and Sine Saloum, in Senegal, have planted more than 100 million mangrove trees, improving the quality of agricultural land by reducing the build-up of salt in the soil. The mangroves also created a habitat full of such valuable sources of food as fish, oysters and crabs.

There is a growing recognition of forests' role in both mitigation and adaptation. They also provide a crucial lifeline to the poor, creating jobs and boosting incomes for local residents. In Miyun, China, local incomes increased by an estimated 50 per cent thanks to an influx of tourists following extensive forest restoration. As a result, the Beijing government has now invested US$1.5 billion in protecting the Miyun watershed, which delivers 80 per cent of Beijing's water.

In an area previously called 'The Desert of Tanzania', over 500,000 hectares of restored forests are today offering better protection against drought for over two million people – and doubled household incomes.

Besides helping nature and communities cope with global warming, halting the loss and degradation of natural systems and promoting their restoration has the potential to contribute over one third of the total mitigation of climate change that science says is required by 2030.

And there are an estimated 2 billion hectares of degraded and deforested land worldwide that could be transformed into a resilient, multifunctional asset for rural communities.

How we treat our natural assets today will determine how well we will withstand the changing climate of tomorrow. Ecosystem-based adaptation helps us move from short-term coping tactics to deal with immediate climate change impacts to developing the long-term strategies necessary to address climate change. It is a nature-based solution whose time has come.