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by James Curran
08 November 2022
Restoring nature and biodiversity is the key to tackling the climate crisis

Curran says Scotland could connect its national parks. Rannoch Moor with Buchaille Etive Mhor in the background | Credit: Alamy

Restoring nature and biodiversity is the key to tackling the climate crisis

Net zero is a term first coined by a group of friends sitting in the kitchen of Tessa Tennant, the well-known green investor, in her family home in the Scottish Borders. They wanted to make climate targets easily understandable. They achieved that certainly. 

The “net” bit means there will be, at least in part, a removal of carbon dioxide somehow – in order to balance out some of those remaining emissions in decades to come that are very hard, or impossible, to prevent.

The easiest way to remove CO2 is to support and encourage nature, which does it all the time.

COP27 in Egypt follows on from COP26 in Glasgow and is an attempt, yet again, to ratchet up the commitments from 193 nations to do more about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Fewer will know of the UN conference on biodiversity that is happening in Montreal in December. It is much delayed but the so-called “Global Biodiversity Framework” document, seeking agreement at the conference, has been public for a while.

The Framework presents ambitious targets:  30 per cent of the global land and sea protected for nature by 2030; 66 per cent reduction in use of pesticides; 50 per cent reduction in nutrient loss; 50 per cent reduction of biodiversity impact by businesses; elimination of all harmful subsidies; biodiversity to be fully recognised in all policy, legislation, regulation and accounts across all sectors. Followed up, of course, by monitoring and reporting.

That’s a big ask.  But a very necessary one, because the planet naturally absorbs around half of our man-made CO2 emissions – a smaller part dissolving in the oceans and making them acidic, which is harmful to marine life, and the major part absorbed by vegetation which then locks quite a lot of the carbon up in soil.

This process of sequestration is a life-saver for us, as we struggle to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. But it mustn’t be taken for granted. Deforestation, and poor land management, immediately undermine nature’s ability to help us. Then climate change itself is driving the spread of pests and diseases, droughts, wildfires and floods – all of which damage both crops and natural vegetation, as well as soils.

The Framework also requires the adoption of an ecosystem approach. Ecosystems provide us humans with a range of essential services – such as oxygen to breathe, clean water to drink, food, which is heavily dependent on insects for pollination, fertile soils, and that essential carbon sequestration. 

In Scotland, almost half of all these services are in decline. That is a seriously unsustainable situation. Ecosystems only function if there is a healthy biodiversity, and measures from around the world are very worrying: in the UK the abundance of over 200 priority species has declined by 60 per cent over the past 50 years, while globally there’s been a 70 per cent decline in abundance of over 5,000 species monitored at over 30,000 locations. It’s reckoned that extinction is happening around 1,000 times faster now than before humans began to interfere.

It won’t be cheap to restore nature. But it will be hugely profitable. Why? Because the World Economic Forum currently has climate-related issues as their top three global risks, recognising that the potential damage of climate change is truly catastrophic. 

SwissRe judges that global GDP will be up to 14 per cent smaller under the current 2050 climate change projections. Also, the World Trade Organisation reckons that 55 per cent of global GDP is dependent on healthy ecosystems. 

For Scotland, it’s been suggested that it will cost £20 Billion over the next ten years to restore our biodiversity.  A big bill, and way more than government is spending, but there is hope.

So, what could be done to recover biodiversity and to restore ecosystem services?  A couple of hints: research indicates that ecosystem services are improved by reconnecting fragmented natural and semi-natural habitats; and the UN suggests that 90 per cent of biodiversity loss is due to extraction and subsequent processing of raw materials.

Now, might it be possible to reconnect habitats at big scale, and for Scotland that means at a national scale?  How about connecting up the existing two large national parks across the relatively small gap between them?  Then, maybe, stretch further across Rannoch Moor and into Lochaber, as well as further north into Glen Affric, and beyond? 

Connected habitats from the edge of Glasgow to Inverness – that would be world-leading.  Of course, all designed to involve local communities and deliver multiple benefits for them, as well as nature and climate change.  Could rewilding be a cheaper and more ecologically appropriate way to create those connections?

Then we also need to think seriously about the circular economy to really reduce our exploitation of the planet, and our endless demand for new raw materials and the transformation of them into the products we all want.

The circular economy is radical, but entirely achievable. It requires products to be designed so that they can be built from recycled materials, that they can be repeatedly upgraded, they can be easily repaired, they can be disassembled to use components, and they can, eventually, be entirely recycled. Yes, recycling, in this case, is the least favoured option. 

This concept of a modern economy is good in other ways: it provides resilience in the face of progressively disruptive climate impacts on raw materials and supply chains, it has a high local job content, therefore high national GDP.  Is there anything not to like?  It’s been suggested that moving to a circular economy would reduce Scotland’s use of raw materials by 50 per cent and reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent.

In Scotland, we might start by seriously applying the circular concept to our national agri-food system?  Food systems are notorious for their inherent 30 per cent waste, and global shortages are predicted under climate change. There are many beneficial opportunities of a new production model in Scotland – for example, creating co-operatives, diversifying products, direct marketing, sharing equipment, agro-forestry, agro-ecology, agri-voltaics, zero-till, composting, biofuels/biogas generation, carbon credit sales, and vertical farming. 

The benefits would also be multiple, including much reduced food waste, reduced food miles, resilient food supplies, more loyal customer base, reduced input costs, higher profits, higher employment, and improved biodiversity and ecosystems.

Any transformation needs investment. There is no way that the traditional funding of nature recovery, from public grants or charities or philanthropy will be enough. There is $200 Trillion available in the global private sector investment market, far more than all the public funds in the world. The Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero, announced by Mark Carney at COP26, commits around $130 Trillion of that to align with net zero. 

The issue is not the finance available, it’s the supply of nature-based solutions to invest in. The global green finance market already stands at six per cent of stock market value, and is growing exponentially. The carbon-credit market alone is reckoned to reach $20bn within just a few years.

Consider just one example: three private investors have provided $15m for the development of local farming co-operatives, a processing plant, collaborative marketing, and the creation of an agro-forestry system on degraded land in Peru. 

The stacking of income streams from both commercial production and carbon credits makes this an investible proposition, returning over 10 per cent on the capital. The same can happen here. There may be opposition from some environmentalists, disliking the marketisation of nature, but is there any alternative – given the scale and urgency of the challenge?

Humankind, over millenia, regarded the environment as a threat – storms, famine, predation, disease, hunger, cold. It’s not surprising that early humans set out to tame and control it. 

But just 150 years ago, a Glasgow man, Angus Smith, was appointed as the world’s first environmental regulator. Society had realised we must limit our damage to the immediate environment and, consequentially, to our own health. 

Nowadays, we are just beginning to realise that we depend entirely on the global environment for all that sustains us, but it seems we are pretty useless at running the planet. We are part of nature ourselves, and we are destroying ourselves.

Can that realisation enter mainstream politics and the economy fast enough?  If it does, then we will have a much happier and healthier, and continuing, future.

Holyrood’s Climate Emergency Summit will be held between the 16th and 17th November.

Professor James Curran will chair Day 2 of the summit, focusing on the nature crisis and delivery of solutions to it. 

Holyrood’s Green Giant Awards will be held on the 16th November.  The summit is closed to registration, but there are still spaces available at the awardsMore information on how to book your place is available here.

 

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