Dr Jeanette Whitaker, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), has been looking at how we measure success of climate change adaptation and mitigation in terrestrial ecosystems, and is a co-author on an important review into the issue, recently published in the journal Science. Here, she explains that helping nature to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions has multiple benefits for people and wildlife…

Urgent action is needed to halt net greenhouse gas emissions and also help the natural world adapt to irreversible climate change. With careful management, nature itself can help humans tackle the problem; for example, forests, peatlands and other wild places need to be protected and restored to reduce net emissions and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The great thing about such nature-based solutions is that as well as reducing emissions, they also build the resilience of ecosystems, protect biodiversity and provide a wide range of benefits for people.

However, it is crucial that we ensure any action to help ecosystems mitigate climate change, and adapt to its impacts, does not have unintended consequences that threaten biodiversity or increase emissions elsewhere in the environment.

Our new paper in Science highlights the potential conflicts and synergies between strategies aimed at climate mitigation (such as increasing carbon capture and storage through better land management including tree planting) and those aimed at helping biodiversity and people adapt to climate change. We need to ensure climate mitigation strategies are consistent with wider global goals to increase biodiversity and make sustainable economic, social and health improvements, in order to avoid unintended consequences. To do this, we need better ways to measure, monitor and evaluate adaption and mitigation measures.

The key findings from our paper – a collaboration between Natural England, UKCEH, the British Trust for Ornithology, RSPB, Climate Resilience Ltd and the University of Stellenbosch – are:

  • Natural and semi-natural ecosystems must be at the forefront of efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change
  • Nature-based solutions, including ecosystem restoration are efficient and effective solutions to cut net greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change
  • It is important to have a clear view of what constitutes success in climate change adaptation and mitigation and to be able measure progress
  • More emphasis on testing the effectiveness of proposed approaches to adaptation and mitigation is necessary for ongoing development of nature-based solutions.
  • It is essential to take an integrated view of mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity, and the needs of people, to realise potential synergies and avoid conflict between different objectives

Taking action is challenging as there are multiple aspects and also solutions will be different depending on location, timescales and the effects of climate change at that time. For example, if a wetland is threatened by changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, we may be able to protect it by managing the catchment better to maintain water supply in dry periods. However, if changes in climate continue to get more severe, we may have to accept it is no longer possible to maintain the wetland and therefore have to manage its change to a different sort of habitat.

It is important that adaptation and mitigation measures are planned in an integrated way. The focus should be on the individual local situation, taking account of the impacts on biodiversity and people, and this way success can be evaluated holistically.

Such a carefully planned and pragmatic approach matters because we are asking a lot of our ecosystems. We want to use them to increase carbon storage to mitigate climate change but those same ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and strategies need to be in place to help those ecosystems adapt, in order to protect biodiversity and people.

Paper information

Michael D. Morecroft, Simon Duffield, Mike Harley, James W. Pearce Higgins, Nicola Stevens, Olly Watts, Jeanette Whitaker. 2019. Measuring the success of climate change adaptation and mitigation in terrestrial ecosystems. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw9256