When COP26 ended last November, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) saw reason to be positive about the progress made; the importance of nature in the fight against climate change has finally risen to the global agenda. We have seen international commitments to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 and, most importantly, the COP26 final decision text stresses “the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement”, which aims to limit global warming to zero. more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

As nations now prepare to join the COP27 talks in Egypt in November, it is essential that this commitment to nature and biodiversity, and its role in tackling climate change, continues – and that it be made possible by action at all levels. In order to meet the 1.5C target, emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030, and ultimately the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050. And while these targets are needed, it is deeply concerning that current pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as shown in UNEP’s latest emissions gap report, fall far short of sustaining the 1.5°C target in sight.

As leaders gather at COP27 to bridge this perilous gap between science and commitments to action, for FFI one thing is clear: there is no path to net zero without ambitious action to protect , sustainably manage and restore nature. If we do not prioritize the protection of nature, not only will we lose an important carbon sequestration capacity (through natural carbon sinks, such as forests), but we risk eroding the resilience of natural ecosystems and our ability to adapt to the effects of already very real climate change. Scientific evidence also points to the significant risk of catalyzing the release of catastrophic volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, if irreversible ecosystem ‘tipping points’ are reached.

In terms of nature’s climate power, the role of marine and coastal ecosystems – reservoirs of “blue carbon” – have a vital role to play alongside their terrestrial counterparts, such as forest and peat systems. Take seagrass, for example. These exceptional aquatic plants are anchored to the seabed by their roots and, over time, form vast meadows. Seagrass beds occur in shallow coastal waters over much of the world except Antarctica, and the most recent global area of ​​seagrass beds is estimated at 160,000 km2. Although its importance goes largely unnoticed, seagrasses are actually an important carbon sink, capable of storing carbon much more efficiently than trees.

Seagrass stores carbon mainly in sediments fixed by plant roots and, if left undisturbed, can remain undisturbed for millennia. A seagrass meadow in Portlligat Bay in Spain, for example, has accumulated carbon-rich deposits up to 10 meters deep and over 6,000 years old. With the potential of seagrasses to capture up to 8 kg of carbon and produce up to 10 liters of oxygen per square meter per day, this meadow alone plays an important role in the climate balance.

But seagrasses and their immense carbon sequestration and storage capacities are under threat. Seagrass beds are being neglected and degraded by human activities, and in many areas they are being depleted at an alarming rate. In the UK it is estimated that 90% of seagrass beds have already been lost.

The impact of this? Not only are we losing an important natural carbon sink, but as seagrass beds are degraded or destroyed, the carbon is released back into the ocean and atmosphere. At the same time, communities and economies are directly affected, for example through the loss of fish breeding and nursery grounds that underpin local food security and commercial fishing.

Seagrasses are of course not the only reservoirs of blue carbon under threat. A future, and potentially catastrophic, threat to accumulated carbon in ocean sediments is the proposed move towards deep seabed mining; a burgeoning conflict zone in net zero travel. The move towards electric cars and other so-called “green” technologies designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is increasing demand for metals and minerals critical to decarbonization technologies. As a result, many countries are pushing to start plundering the mineral reserves found in the deep seabed – perversely risking significant new greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other negative impacts.

As FFI’s landmark assessment report points out, deep seabed mining comes with a series of potentially catastrophic risks. From the disruption of ocean life support systems to the destruction of unstudied ecosystems, to unpredictable levels of carbon and methane release, the consequences of seabed mining could be disastrous, not only for the nature, but also for the increase in global temperatures.

As in all scientific fields, the path to net zero is unclear and difficult decisions will of course have to be made. But, as the world develops its strategies towards a zero-carbon future, we must ensure that nature is at the heart of these decisions. At COP27 in November, we call for the strong integration of pro-nature policies and practices into all decarbonization efforts, to avoid falling into the trap of false solutions – including the mining of seabed – in the transition to net zero.

We must also ensure that the critical role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities on the front lines of nature-based climate action – often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – is recognised, activated and fairly resourced. There are vital benefits for people to protect and restore blue carbon systems. Mangrove trees – another legion of blue carbon heroes – not only support climate change mitigation efforts by sequestering and storing carbon, but also form a crucial two-way natural barrier between the ocean and coastal settlements due to their ability to thrive in brackish waters between land and sea – thus playing an important role in climate adaptation as well. Trees slow coastal erosion and collect ocean-bound river sediments and, in the event of floods, storms and tidal waves, they provide an important protective barrier that is far more beneficial and cost effective than technical solutions.

At FFI, we work with our national partners around the world to protect seagrass beds, mangroves and other critical carbon reservoirs. Although out of sight, blue carbon ecosystems should certainly not be forgotten in the context of climate negotiations.

The more nature degrades, the more we erode its ability to help us in the fight towards net-zero.

We therefore call for a ‘protection first’ approach to nature-based responses to climate change, to prevent further loss of carbon-rich and biodiversity-rich ecosystems, which simply cannot be replaced by a focus on replanting. Once lost, these natural carbon sinks and stores – marine and terrestrial – that underpin climate regulation can never be recovered. We must prioritize their protection – before it’s too late – and we urge this message to remain at the forefront of the climate negotiations in November.

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