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Restoring native woodlands can help protect against climate change as well as boost nature

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The two planetary crises of climate change and nature loss must be tackled together or neither will be successfully solved, a major report has warned.

Action to help natural habitats, such as restoring native woodlands or peatlands, can deliver win-wins for wildlife, storing carbon and protecting against climate impacts, according to two international bodies.

The report was produced by a workshop of 50 biodiversity and climate experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in the first collaboration of its kind.

The peer-reviewed report warns that climate change and biodiversity loss have largely been tackled separately, even though both are driven by human activities and both have impacts on each other.

Climate change is threatening wildlife by affecting habitats, and the warmer the world becomes, the less natural systems can provide for humans.

At the same time, destroying nature and habitats – from salt marshes along the coasts to wildlife in the oceans and forests on land – reduces the natural world’s ability to capture human-driven carbon emissions and protect against climate impacts such as sea level rises, storms and droughts.

There are solutions that can help deliver benefits for the climate and nature, including stopping the destruction of wildlife-rich habitats such as forests, wetlands, mangroves, kelp forests and seagrass meadows.

Restoring these kind of areas is among the cheapest and quickest nature-based measures to cut emissions, as well as providing habitat and delivering benefits including protecting coasts, cutting soil erosion and curbing floods.

Managing crop and grazing land better, with measures such as conserving soils and reducing pesticides, can save 3 to 6 billion tonnes of emissions a year, the report says.

A substantial increase in intact and effectively conserved protected areas would also help, along with eliminating subsidies that support deforestation, overfishing and too much use of fertiliser.

But some “nature-based solutions” that use natural systems to tackle climate change – such as non-native tree plantations or large-scale planting of monoculture crops for bioenergy – harm nature and people.

And while nature-based solutions can help tackle climate change, they aren’t a substitute for immediate and aggressive greenhouse gas emissions cuts in all sectors, the experts said.

“The land can’t do it all. Sometimes nature-based solutions are seen as quick, convenient and a cheap way to address climate change,” said Pete Smith at the University of Aberdeen in the UK, part of the group that produced the report.

“But we know we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions immediately and aggressively in all sectors of the economy, and to apply nature-based solutions will help us with that but it is not a substitute for that immediate and aggressive reductions in emissions,” said Smith.

“We cannot avoid dangerous climate change without sucking up some of the carbon we’ve already put into the atmosphere,” said Camille Parmesan at Plymouth University, UK, another author of the report. “At this point reducing emissions is essential, but not enough, and the best way to suck up carbon is to use the power of plants.”

In the UK, there should be a focus on restoring degraded peatlands and natural meadows on grazing land and planting diverse native woodlands, to boost wildlife, absorb carbon and create landscapes that are resilient to a changing climate, the experts said.

Parmesan warned that nature-based solutions need to be smart, and while planting trees may be the right solution in some places, it isn’t always. She cautioned against planting “sterile” tree plantations that lack diversity, do nothing for wildlife and aren’t resilient to climate change.

She called for planting of more diverse woodlands, which would be better for nature, but also store carbon better and be more resilient to climate change. “I am very worried that the UK government is not getting it,” she said. “It takes a little more money and a little bit more labour to plant a diverse forest, but not much.”

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