Climate fight must enlist biodiversity and communities

UN-led efforts to address climate change, conserve biodiversity and fight poverty could cancel each other out unless the close links between these global challenges are given more attention.

News, 18 February 2008

UN-led efforts to address climate change, conserve biodiversity and fight poverty could cancel each other out unless the close links between these global challenges are given more attention, says a paper published today (18 February) by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

It warns that many efforts to mitigate climate change have paid scant attention to biodiversity conservation and the world's poor.

The paper shows that biodiversity has a key role to play in both adapting to the impacts ahead and cutting the concentration of greenhouse gases but that, to be effective, policies must have greater input from local communities who are particularly vulnerable to climate change and have valuable local knowledge.

It comes as government parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meet in Rome this week (18-22 February) to progress talks ahead of the main CBD conference in May.

"Governments, businesses, donor agencies and individuals need to do more joined up thinking to ensure that the aims of the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are met," says Hannah Reid who wrote the paper with fellow senior researcher Krystyna Swiderska.

"Pro-poor, biodiversity-friendly ways to adapt to and mitigate climate change are clearly the way forward," says Swiderska. "But for them to work, local communities must be involved in decisions about how biodiversity is used. Good governance and fair access to land and resources must be at the heart of these efforts."

There are tight links between biodiversity — the variety of life on Earth, from genes to species to ecosystems — climate and people’s resilience to environmental change. But bad policies can promote biodiversity loss and even greater impacts on the people most vulnerable to climate change.

Poor people depend heavily on biodiversity for food, medicine, and livelihoods, and the greater the variety of natural resources, the more options they have. Yet climate change threatens many species with extinction and policies aimed at addressing the threat could also reduce biodiversity and people’s livelihood options.

The paper points out that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations by preserving substantial areas of forest risk excluding local communities from the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods. Meanwhile, production of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels has led to widespread conversion of biodiverse forests, savannas and peatlands, causing the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases.

The report concludes that while large projects have political appeal and provide an 'easy fix', the biodiversity, climate change and poverty benefits of small-scale activities may be many times greater.

"Policymakers have focused on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions but biodiversity is also key to adaptation to climate change, particularly as it enhances the resilience of farming systems and other ecosystems," says Swiderska. "For centuries, traditional farmers have used the diversity within both domesticated and wild species to adapt to changing conditions."

"Policymakers and scientists searching for solutions to climate change should recognise the value of traditional farming systems that sustain agricultural biodiversity," says Swiderska.

"Local knowledge, practices and innovations will be crucial to adaptation, biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. Many communities are already using agricultural -biodiversity and traditional practices, such as seed exchange and field experimentation, to adapt to climate change. Farmer-researcher collaboration can bring added value that each alone could never realise"

The report points out that traditional farming also brings mitigation benefits as it produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than modern intensive approaches that rely on mechanisation, and inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels.

Similarly, protecting biodiverse habitats such as forests and mangroves can provide multiple benefits for adaptation, mitigation, poverty reduction and biodiversity — by storing carbon, protecting coastlines, limiting erosion and regulating water flow, which reduce the risks of flooding.