Functional, resilient ecosystems have an essential role to play in addressing climate change. In a recent presentation to the Wales Planning Conference, Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead Dr. Paul Jepson outlined how the modernisation of biodiversity policy in Wales could better support such ecosystems and deliver environmental net gain.
Delivering nature-based solutions
Today the linked climate and nature emergencies are often portrayed as threat to social and economic stability. It is also increasingly well recognised that actions to recover degraded ecosystems represent a practical, immediate and cost effective way of addressing both issues, and that they can deliver nature-based solutions that generate new value for people.
In Wales, as in most parts of the UK, ecosystems have been slowly degraded over the millennia. This means their capacity to deliver essential services to society - including nature-based solutions to climate change - is impaired. The question now is how to reshape biodiversity policy to best promote the restoration of ecosystem resilience and functionality and facilitate environmental net gain.
A solid foundation
Three recent events have major implications for Welsh planning policy and biodiversity - the passing of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, the declaration of a climate and ecological emergency by the Welsh government in 2019, and the publication in 2020 of a report by WWF Cymru titled "Wales's Nature Crisis: recommendations for an immediate emergency response" (put together with the assistance of Ecosulis).
The aim of the Environment (Wales) Act is to ensure that the country's natural resources are managed sustainably so they can deliver social, economic and environmental benefits, including nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation and mitigation. As such, Part 1 of the Act draws upon the ecosystem approach adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is essential to ensuring ecosystem resilience and delivering nature-based solutions to climate change. In this respect, the act is one of the most progressive in Europe.
Mitigation and adaptation
While they are linked, it is important to realise that the climate and nature emergencies are quite different issues. The former essentially relates to the emission of pollutants, the latter the collapse of species and a loss of ecosystem function.
Until recently, international climate change policy has largely focused on trying to limit carbon dioxide emissions. The situation is now diversifying, with policies to promote both climate change mitigation (reducing the emission of pollutants) and adaptation (reducing negative effects and taking advantage of opportunities). Both strategies complement each other, and although they present different challenges, the end goal is the same. Functioning ecosystems are vital to both approaches - for example, to sequester carbon, to address flooding and reduce the incidence of wildfire.
Natural climate solutions.
The need for systems thinking
On the mitigation side, several companies are now emerging to offer tree planting as means of capturing greenhouse gas pollutants. Tree planting is an easy climate change mitigation option in terms of planning policy, with a clear and linear logic that appeals to politicians, citizens, companies and investors. The carbon sequestration rates of newly planted trees can easily be calculated, with planting schemes funded through the sale of carbon credits or direct investment by business.
Despite the obvious appeal, there is a growing worry in the field that an overfocus on tree planting could have negative effects on wider ecosystem function and resilience. In short, the climate and nature emergencies are both earth system-related challenges which will require a systems thinking approach to overcome. Huge tree planting programmes are not a universal cure-all and could have negative consequences if not part of a coherent, holistic strategy.
Harking back to the protectionist worldviews and science of the 1980s, most of today's biodiversity policy is outdated, which means current biodiversity policy mechanisms and instruments are not fit for implementing ecosystem recovery and resilience. As the UK's failure to reach its biodiversity targets has shown, policies which focus purely on conserving biodiversity are failing to have a significant impact on either biodiversity decline or climate change. They may have led to strong protective nature laws and policy, but they have also introduced complexity, cost, inflexibility and frustration into the UK planning system.
Over the last decade, a new scientific discourse around ecosystem recovery has emerged. However, this is only just starting to feed into policy and administrative culture. While the science and applied principles of nature restoration and rewilding are now evolving rapidly, policy still lags behind.
A focus on innovation
While conservation-related policy and administrative culture is currently based on managing and protecting units of nature (priority habitats and species), the recovery of ecosystem function and resilience - which has never been attempted before - will require the restoration of interactions between organisms, their environment and society, as well as a willingness to embrace society.
One step towards achieving this goal may be the creation of "spaces of nature innovation"; this could entail zones where existing policies are relaxed, public competitions that encourage the development of innovative nature-based approaches, demonstration projects that engage other with new ideas, the reconnection of nature policy with cultural trends, and rethinking the processes that enable policy design.
Rewilding isn't a panacea. But by enhancing nature-based solutions, it offers a way of tackling a wide range of problems, including climate change. Underpinned by systems thinking, pragmatic realism and a commitment to practical action, it can create entire landscapes that are more adaptable and more resilient to the impacts of global warming, with co-benefits that include higher biodiversity, revitalised local economies, and happier, healthier people. Measures to reform the planning system in Wales and bring biodiversity policy into the twenty-first century can help to make such landscapes a reality.