Biodiversity, ecosystems and climate change

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Climate protection, preservation of biodiversity and social justice are inextricably linked.

If we are to tackle global warming and promote sustainable development, the entire human race must work together to combat climate change and biodiversity loss whilst encouraging social justice, and must give equal consideration to each of these intertwined aspects in all political decisions, whether at a global, national or regional level. According to the German co-authors, this is the most important message of a new scientific workshop report on biodiversity, ecosystems and climate change which has been drawn up jointly for the first time by experts from both the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was presented to the public on 10 June 2021. One of the main authors is palaeobiologist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kießling from FAU.

The scientists have proven how healthy ecosystems can help protect the climate over the long term. ‘Ecosystems with a high degree of biodiversity are more resilient to climate change than others, as is clearly indicated by palaeontological findings,’ explains Wolfgang Kießling, Chair of Palaeoenvironmental Research. At the same time, however, their findings clearly demonstrate the detrimental impact of unilateral projects aimed at protecting the climate – such as encouraging extensive planting of bioenergy crops – actually have on nature in both the short and long term, reducing its ability to regulate the climate and provide people with enough food, drinking water and other means for their survival. Wolfgang Kießling has taken a closer look at the current situation – and it is frightening, to say the least. Today, global warming caused by humans already exceeds one degree Celsius. Less than one quarter of land and only 13 percent of oceans are considered to be untouched by the human race. Humans and their domestic animals account for 96 percent of the total biomass of all mammals. ‘Anthropogenic climate change and direct human influence mutually reinforce each other in their negative impact on biodiversity and the climate,’ summarises Kießling.

Protecting the climate through natural means and considering the limits of ecosystems.

‘Our synthesis clearly shows how the climate and natural landscapes on Earth interact and impact each other. We cannot look at one without considering the other. Minimising global warming and encouraging a biodiverse, productive and resilient natural world is essential if we want to have sustainable, socially just human communities,’ says Prof. Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner, climate researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), who coordinated work on the workshop report together with the South African conservationist Prof. Dr. Robert J. Scholes. These close interactions constitute a major challenge for politicians.

The situation is not always clear cut and can lead to controversial measures such as cutting down tropical rainforests to grow bioenergy crops like soya and oil palms. In Central Europe too, however, the increasing competition for land raises the question of how best to manage use of land, forests and the coast to balance the interests of the climate, nature and humanity sustainably, in other words to protect biodiversity, produce sufficient food, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and ensure that the carbon reservoirs in forests, soil and the sea floor are maintained to the greatest possible extent.

When it comes to forests, for example, politicians have to decide whether to cultivate extensive monocultures for gaining raw materials and energy or to encourage the establishment of biodiverse ecosystems instead. ‘The climate is changing rapidly, and we must accept that our indigenous tree species may not be suited to the climate of the future,’ says Hans-Otto Pörtner. It is becoming clear that traditional species are not resilient enough. This is the case for trees in the middle latitudes and for those in tropical rainforests as well.

The wrong approach: Emissions should not be traded off against measures to protect biodiversity.

New strategies currently pursued by policy makers in which greenhouse gas emissions from energy-intensive sectors are set off against renaturalisation and conservationist measures are misleading and counter-productive. Hans-Otto Pörtner believes that it makes no sense whatsoever from a climate policy point of view to legitimise continued emissions of greenhouse gases by ensuring that an existing forest is not felled. ‘The world needs short-term drastic cuts in emissions in order to stop temperatures rising further, combined with measures to retain and renew large, healthy ecosystems, which in the long term will put us in a position to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than that which is released by human activity. We should consider natural processes as an additional asset which we need to work at strengthening in the long term.’

Policies geared towards climate protection and conservation would be especially promising if they were combined with improving social justice. ‘It is up to us now to fight poverty worldwide and encourage the just distribution of resources. Faced with social and economic hardship, many people have no choice but to make a living from hunting, illegal fishing, mining gold or partaking in other activities which contribute to the widespread exploitation of nature. Freeing these people from their desperate situation would be a first major step towards sustainable climate protection and nature conservation,’ says Hans-Otto Pörtner.

Climate protection and nature conservation as the guiding force behind all political action

The scientists believe that the new workshop report delivers an important basis for future political decisions. ‘For the first time, a report has been drafted by experts from various disciplines highlighting the three major crises of our time – the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the social crisis.’ It is obvious that these challenges will only be resolved if measures are closely intertwined and well coordinated. There has to be a change in thinking among policy-makers, in the economy and in society as a whole,’ demands Wolfgang Kießling.

One plausible option would be to introduce a Biodiversity Act along the lines of the Climate Protection Act. This would encourage nature conservation to become more prominent in the minds of policy-makers, and help establish protection of biodiversity across the various government offices. In future, the scientists believe, all political decisions should be judged on the basis of whether they help realise the best possible results for our climate, biodiversity and the local communities.

About the report

As well as a 12-person Scientific Steering Committee, a total of 50 authors were involved in the IPBES-IPCC Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change, including nine from German speaking countries. The original version of the report is available to download:

Further information

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kießling
Chair of Palaeoenviromental Research
Phone: +49 9131 85 26959