Guest Article #86

Seizing the Ecosystem Based Adaptation Opportunity: Buffering Climate Change Impacts Now and Beyond COP 18

In a few weeks, delegates from around the world will gather for the next UN climate change talks (COP 18) in Doha, Qatar, to chart the way forward on the modalities of adaptation. The changing climate is happening at an unprecedented rate and impacting a lot of people across the globe.[1] The rising sea levels, longer and more frequent droughts, heightened hurricane activity and floods are increasingly affecting livelihoods. 

Given this vast array of challenges, we need to ensure that the worlds' ecosystems remain resilient to the unknowns ahead. In June 2012, global leaders for the first time explicitly recognized ecosystems as the core element in addressing climate change impacts and paving the way towards achieving sustainable development. However, the questions as to the type of strategies, approaches and actions required still generate divergent views on the international policy arena. A logical approach that is gaining greater momentum is using nature to adapt to climate change and maintain our life support systems, in what is called Ecosystems Based Adaptation (EbA). EbA is the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people and communities adapt to the negative effects of climate change at local, national, regional and global levels. It is a holistic way of dealing with climate change adaptation, where integration between issues is the key element. As such, EbA takes a holistic, inter-disciplinary integrated approach that recognizes the inter-connectivity between ecological, social-cultural, economic and institutional structures.

The Benefits of EbA

EbA addresses the crucial links among climate change, biodiversity and sustainable resource management. By preserving and enhancing ecosystems, it enables society to better mitigate and adapt to climate change.[2] However, ecosystems continue to be degraded due to climate change, pollution and unsustainable over exploitation.[3] Restoration of degraded ecosystems as part of an EbA provides: a mechanism for carbon capture and hence climate change mitigation; sources of employment; and enhancement of resources to support livelihoods.[4] For example, mangrove forest and coastal marches buffer storm surges. Research and practical work  have shown that restoring or conserving mangrove ecosystems can therefore help protect coastal communities from current and projected rise in the number of tropical storms under a changing climate.[5] Ecosystems deliver services that can help meet adaptation needs across multiple human development sectors including disaster risk reduction (DRR) (through flood regulation and storm surge protection), food security (from fisheries to agro-forestry), sustainable water management and livelihood diversification (through increasing resource-used options).

Economy and EbA

Beyond mitigation and adaptation, EbA provides a third ‘win', by providing the basis for new economic growth. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity studies show that an annual global investment of $45 billion in protecting ecosystems could deliver an estimated $5 trillion a year in benefits, a cost-benefit ratio of over 100:1. Deforestation contributes close to 20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; an annual investment of $20 billion could halve these emissions, while securing livelihoods and reducing poverty in tropical countries. EbA can complement, or substitute for, more expensive infrastructure investments to protect coastal settlements.[6] Strengthening and protecting ecosystems can be likened to a long-term investment that ensures an array of environmental, social and financial benefits well into the future. Studies and practical work on EbA show that it constitutes a cost-effective adaptation approach. In Maldives where ~80% of the islands are about 1 m above sea level, coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems provide critical protection to coastal communities from storms and erosion, substantially reducing storm-related damages and saving lives.[7] Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of the most powerful tropical storms, making the protective role of the reefs and their conservation more critical in the coming years. If they were lost, the cost of building hard infrastructure such as seawalls, breakwaters and other forms of coastal protection to replace the natural reefs has been estimated at US$1.6 billion–2.7 billion.[8] In contrast, conserving the reefs to prevent their on-going degradation as a result of pressures ranging from overfishing to coral mining, through establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), would cost ~US$34 million in start-up and ~US$47 million annually. This investment would maintain their critical protection service and could generate ~US$10 billion per year in co-benefits through tourism and sustainable fisheries.[9]

Integrating EbA into Global, Regional, National and Local Decision Making Frameworks

Integrating and mainstreaming EbA into decision making frameworks and planning processes is imperative. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is addressing climate change through its Ecosystem Based Adaptation programme whose overarching goal is to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change through good ecosystem management practices, and their integration into global, regional, national and local climate change strategies and action plans. The EbA programme is delivering specific products and services responding to country needs to support EBA mainstreaming through three main overarching components. These are :(I) Assessments and Knowledge Support (II) Capacity Building and Demonstration (III) and Integration of EBA Options into National Adaptation Plans.

The Way Forward

EbA is a cost-effective, robust and flexible strategy that can cope with the magnitude, speed and uncertainty of climate change. EbA has already proven its worth in many situations and evidence is emerging of its success in helping people adapt to climate variability and change. Harnessing the adaptive forces of nature is economically viable and effective to combat the impacts of climate change. Its potential for synergies with other adaptation options, climate mitigation strategies and development goals warrants EbA having a prominent place in both the national and international funding mechanisms. Indeed, though EbA still remains under-utilized by policymakers and associated stakeholders, it provides a viable strategy for pursuing development goals simultaneously with climate change adaptation and mitigation targets. 

[1] Holly P. Jones, David G. Hole, and Erika S. Zavaleta (2012). Harnessing nature to help people adapt to climate change. Nature Climate Change.

[2] Jeffrey Kiehl (2011). Lessons from the Earth's past. Science, 331: 158-159.

[3] Proceedings of the 2012 Planet Under Pressure Conference:

[4] Munang RT, Thiaw I, and Rivington M.  Ecosystem Management: tomorrow's approach to enhancing food security under a changing climate. Sustainability 2011, 937-954

[5] Biodiversity–climate interactions: adaptation, mitigation and human livelihoods 2008. The Royal Society, London.

[6] Ecosystem-based Approaches to Climate Change. Convenient Solutions to an Inconvenient Truth.

[7] Alongi, D.M. (2008). Mangrove forests: Resilience protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science 76: 1-13.

[8] Moberg F, & Ronnback P. Ecosystem services of the tropical seascape: Interactions, substitutions and restoration 2003. Ocean Coast. Manage 46: 27-46.

[9] Emerton L, Baig S & Saleem M. Valuing Biodiversity: The Economic Case for Biodiversity Conservation in the Maldives (AEC Project), Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment 2009.  Government of Maldives and UNDP, Maldives.