Reducing Stress – How Does Nature Nurture the Brain?

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Sunday, September 25, 2022

A one-hour stroll in nature decreases stress-related brain activity, according to new research. Living in a city is a well-known risk factor for developing mental...

A one-hour stroll in nature decreases stress-related brain activity, according to new research. Living in a city is a well-known risk factor for developing mental...

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World leaders have 2 weeks to agree on a plan to save nature

A green sea turtle swimming off the coast of Western Australia. | Getty Images At COP15 in Montreal, officials will try to hash out a deal to protect animals and ecosystems. It won’t be easy. One of the most important events for life on Earth, ever, is about to begin. This week and next, delegates from more than 190 countries will come together in Montreal, Canada, for a conference known as COP15, or the UN Biodiversity Conference, to hash out a plan to halt the decline of ecosystems, wildlife, and the life-supporting services they provide. If the term “COP” sounds familiar, that’s because there was another UN conference last month called COP27. But these two events are very different. COP27 was about climate change — a conference of countries “party” to the UN’s major climate pact. COP15 will bring together nations party to another major treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity. I know this is a lot of jargon, but these agreements are worth knowing about. They’re arguably the most important tools the world has to protect the planet and, in the case of the biodiversity conference, underappreciated. Many experts call COP15 the last chance to reverse the decline of nature. “Our planet is in crisis,” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said in a press conference earlier this month. More than a million species are threatened with extinction, she said, and populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent. “Clearly, the world is crying out for change,” she said. During COP15, which starts Wednesday, negotiators are expected to finalize and sign a document called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. You can think of it as the Paris Agreement but for biodiversity — a strategy with nearly two dozen measurable targets designed to conserve ecosystems and the benefits they provide, such as food and plant-derived medicines. One of the splashiest and most contested targets is a commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of Earth’s land and water by 2030. It’s known as 30 by 30. The agreement also addresses what is perhaps the most hotly debated topic: Who will pay for all of this? This is especially relevant for poorer nations and Indigenous communities, which harbor most of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Finalizing the biodiversity framework at COP15 will be tough. There’s a noticeable rift between rich and poor nations, which could stall the talks. No heads of state are attending as of yet, other than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Negotiators, who have to agree on specific terms, are already exhausted from COP27. Meanwhile, the World Cup is drawing attention elsewhere. But if and when the framework is signed, it will be a huge moment for conservation — and it could help stave off an apocalyptic-like future, where even our most basic needs like clean water and food are hard to meet. Here’s what to expect in the coming days. The Convention on Biological Diversity, briefly explained The UN oversees hundreds of global treaties on everything from human rights to outer space. They’re essentially contracts between a bunch of countries that stipulate how they should behave, and they’re legally binding. One of them is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — that’s what sprouted the Paris Agreement and the goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. A related treaty is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which dates back to the early 90s. It lays out three primary goals: To conserve biodiversity, which includes species, ecosystems, and genetic diversity. To use its components, like wild animals, in a sustainable way. And to share the various benefits of genetic resources fairly. Those resources might include medicines derived from bacteria or genes that produce desirable traits in crops, such as drought tolerance. Parties to the CBD typically meet every two years at events known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, to check in on progress and update the terms of the contract. That’s what’s happening this week in Montreal (COP15 was supposed to begin in 2020, but it got delayed several times due to Covid; the first part of the event took place last year in Kunming, China). Every country in the world is a party to CBD except the Holy See (a.k.a. the Vatican) — and the United States. Why? The gist is this: In the US, treaties need to be ratified in the Senate by a two-thirds majority, and conservative lawmakers worry that joining global agreements puts American sovereignty at risk. (In the case of CBD, it doesn’t.) That said, the US will still have a large presence at COP15. Although it can’t formally vote on language in the framework, it will still send a delegation to Montreal and ultimately help shape the outcome, given the sheer size of its economy and abundance of wildlife. Chen Yehua/Xinhua via Getty Images A performance at the opening ceremony of COP15 in Kunming, China, on October 14, 2021. Unlike the big climate COPs, heads of state usually don’t show up at CBD conferences, which environmentalists decry. “This is a very concerning situation considering this critical conference seeks to agree on a pathway to curb the collapse of our entire planetary life support system,” Campaign for Nature, an environmental group advocating for 30 by 30, said in a statement last month. “Having government leaders there is essential to elevate this crisis to the level it deserves.” One reason why their attendance is so important, the campaign says, is it signals to investors and shareholders that countries are united in the effort to protect the planet. But COP15 is still drawing more attention and attendees than, perhaps, any other UN biodiversity event before, said Brian O’Donnell, who leads the Campaign for Nature. More than 10,000 delegates have already registered, according to CBD. “This is going to be a much bigger deal than we’ve ever seen,” O’Donnell said, compared to other biodiversity COPs. “The amount of participants is bigger, the amount of media attention is bigger, the stakes are higher.” What COP15 aims to achieve Averting the worst effects of climate change is, in a sense, pretty simple: Keep warming below 1.5°C by limiting the emission of greenhouse gases. Protecting the integrity of ecosystems, however, is a bit more complicated — as is what countries will try to accomplish in Montreal. A major goal of theirs is to figure out how to protect remaining natural environments, restore those that are damaged, and get corporations to stop further destruction. Simple, right? You won’t hear as much chatter about “net-zero emissions” in Montreal as terms like “nature-positive” — a buzzword typically referring to a future with more intact ecosystems, compared to today — and “nature-based solutions.” Monica Schipper/Getty Images for WWF International Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during an event at Central Park Zoo in New York City ahead of the COP15 conference, on September 20, 2022. So, what’s the plan? The biggest to-do at COP15 is for countries to agree on a number of targets that they can achieve by 2030. That’s what’s in the biodiversity framework, which experts have been working on for a few years now. There are currently 22 of them, but that number could change. The targets cover a lot of territory and are pretty specific. Target 2, for example, calls on countries to restore 20 or 30 percent of degraded lands and waters, target 3 proposes conserving at least 30 percent of the planet (such as by limiting development and other harmful activities), and target 7 suggests cutting the use of pesticides or the risks of them by half or two-thirds. There are also targets related to invasive species, harmful subsidies, plastic waste, and the role of businesses in preventing biodiversity loss. (You can find a complete list of targets starting on page 20 here, though, again, keep in mind it’s still a draft.) In addition to hashing out the framework, negotiators at COP15 will also devise — and this is key — a mechanism to measure progress toward those targets. It’s easier to do for some than for others. For target 3, for example, about conserving at least 30 percent of the Earth, there are already databases of protected areas, showing how much land is formally conserved (though even this measuring tool has some issues). If this all sounds like ... a lot, that’s because it is. And COP15 is less than two weeks long, so it will be a race to finish. Many experts suspect it could go into overtime. The major sticking points Today, the biodiversity framework — the key document of COP15 — is very much just a draft. The text has roughly 1,800 brackets surrounding phrasing that delegates don’t agree on, making it hard to even read. “The draft is not in good shape,” said Elsa Tsioumani, an international lawyer, during a COP15 press conference hosted last week by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. “There’s so much cleaning to be done.” Just two of the targets are mostly finalized, she said: one about restoring and conserving nature in cities and another about sharing advances in technology and information. Many more remain controversial. One such target is 30 by 30, or target 3. Some Indigenous people and local communities worry that efforts to conserve more land could impinge on their rights, according to Viviana Figueroa, a legal expert at the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity. These concerns are rooted in a very real and dark history: Western environmentalists once thought of “conserved” nature as something pristine and devoid of human life, and they used that thinking to expel Indigenous people from their land. In reality, Indigenous people are the most effective stewards of the planet’s ecosystems. “We want recognition of what we are doing — what we have been doing for millennia,” Figueroa said, of Indigenous conservation. The agreement will likely acknowledge the importance of Indigenous tribes and their rights, environmental advocates told me. But it’s not clear if their lands will “count” toward reaching the 30 by 30 target, partly because there’s still no universal understanding of what “conserved” means. (There’s a whole other debate about whether 30 percent is enough to protect the integrity of ecosystems, which I delve into here.) Tension also surrounds funding for conservation and the phase-down of subsidies. Developing countries have called on richer nations to put at least $100 billion a year into a fund for poorer countries, but “we’re nowhere near that right now,” O’Donnell said of funding. Existing pledges for biodiversity financing total about $6.6 billion a year. (This debate echoes similar conversations at COP27.) There’s also an ongoing debate about who should be administering the money, according to Helen Tugendhat, a program coordinator at the nonprofit Forest Peoples Programme. Beyond that, delegates are also somewhat stuck on targets 2 (restoration), 7 (pollution), 10 (agriculture reform), and 15 (the role of corporations), experts say. “Almost all targets still have multiple brackets and multiple options,” said Guido Broekhoven, who leads policy, research, and development at WWF International. “It’s really difficult to see how these will be played out.” Getty Images A great gray owl. So, can COP15 actually do anything? First, the bad news: The Convention on Biological Diversity doesn’t have a great track record. More than a decade ago, its member countries agreed to a similar but much vaguer set of 20 targets — known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — to protect ecosystems by 2020. They included things like reducing impacts on coral reefs and preventing the extinction of threatened species. Yet the world didn’t meet a single one of them. So what will make these new targets different? They’re certainly no less ambitious. These targets need to be more specific and measurable, Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said at a press conference last week. “This is a key element that we’re really advocating for in the new GBF,” he said. In other words, countries need to have clear goals and a way to track their progress against them — so, not just “make farming more environmentally friendly” but “reduce X farming chemicals by X amount,” and so on. Countries will also need to agree on a rigorous approach to monitoring progress toward the framework’s targets. Broekhoven of WWF suggests that, after four years, for example, nations should review their progress and then potentially make even bigger commitments, following the monitoring framework of the Paris Agreement. But perhaps the biggest reason to think that this time will be different is that people — world leaders, business executives, and the general public — are paying more attention to what’s happening to nature, to the erosion of ecosystems, than ever before. “Nature has never been higher on the political or corporate agenda,” Lambertini said. That means more eyes are watching and there will be more accountability. “We already have lost half of the forests, half of the coral reefs, 80 percent of the wetlands,” Lambertini said. “All this will only get worse unless we change the way we live, produce, and consume — in other words, unless we rebalance our relationship with nature. Failure in Montreal is not an option.”

Nature positive and 30x30 – just soundbites or the foundations of a Cop15 deal?

As participants arrive in Montreal to negotiate this decade’s targets for protecting biodiversity, two themes are getting the lion’s share of attentionAfter more than two years of delays, Cop15, the once-in-decade global biodiversity summit, is about to begin. More than 10,000 participants from across the planet will start arriving in Montreal at the weekend to negotiate crucial goals for protecting biodiversity.There has been a coordinated push behind some targets, namely from a group of countries that want to protect 30% of land and sea for nature (30x30) by the end of the decade. The idea of “nature positive” is another theme being promoted in the pre-Cop15 rhetoric from NGOs and governments. Continue reading...

As participants arrive in Montreal to negotiate this decade’s targets for protecting biodiversity, two themes are getting the lion’s share of attentionAfter more than two years of delays, Cop15, the once-in-decade global biodiversity summit, is about to begin. More than 10,000 participants from across the planet will start arriving in Montreal at the weekend to negotiate crucial goals for protecting biodiversity.There has been a coordinated push behind some targets, namely from a group of countries that want to protect 30% of land and sea for nature (30x30) by the end of the decade. The idea of “nature positive” is another theme being promoted in the pre-Cop15 rhetoric from NGOs and governments. Continue reading...

Canada is hosting the largest biodiversity conference in the world. Here’s what’s at stake

By Ainslie Cruickshank Thousands of people will soon converge on Montreal for the United Nations’ biodiversity conference, the world’s big chance to agree on a path forward to save nature — and ourselves

By Ainslie Cruickshank There are no gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean anymore. The island marble butterfly and Pacific pond turtle have disappeared from B.C. And, in Ontario, the paddlefish and timber rattlesnake are locally extinct. Wetlands have been drained, grasslands destroyed and old-growth forests systematically cleared. It’s a global problem and it’s getting worse. And, yet there are solutions. What’s not clear is whether we come together to act in time. But soon delegates from countries around the world will converge in Montreal to hash out the final details of what could be a landmark agreement to save biodiversity. There is a lot at stake: biodiversity is all living things, the genetic diversity within species and the variety of ecosystems found on Earth. For better or worse, humans are part of it. Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. A weak agreement could see a continued erosion of nature, creating a dire situation for close to one million species already at risk of extinction and threatening our ability to combat human-caused climate change. A strong agreement, backed up with funding and monitoring mechanisms, could set the stage for renewed efforts to protect nature. Here’s what you need to know in the lead up to COP15, the United Nations’ biodiversity conference in Montreal. How bad is the global biodiversity crisis? In a word? Bad.  A 2019 global assessment warned biodiversity is declining with unprecedented speed as humans destroy habitats, hunt and fish to excess and pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the Earth’s climate.  “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” assessment Co-Chair Josef Settele said in a statement.  Scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approach a young North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear. Fishing gear is just one of the threats these endangered whales face. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Flickr Scientists say the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history has already started. The last one took out the dinosaurs. If this one continues unabated it will be remembered as the first caused by an animal — us.  Of course, it’s not just plants and animals and microorganisms we’re risking here. Though nature has inherent value, it’s also vital for people. As it declines, it threatens our own health, livelihoods and very existence. It’s a gloomy picture, but there is still hope. The global assessment said there is still time to turn things around with “transformative” change at every level.  What exactly is COP15? There are a lot of numbered COPs out there, so it’s easy to lose track. So far this year, there’s been the climate COP27, the wetlands COP14 and soon the biodiversity COP15. COP stands for Conference of the Parties. These are global meetings where signatories to various international agreements get together to make decisions about how those treaties are implemented. The COP about to take place in Montreal — from Dec. 7-19 — is the fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s an international treaty to ensure biodiversity is conserved and used sustainably, and that any benefits are shared equitably. What are countries working towards at COP15?  In the lead up to COP15, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the parties have been working on a new plan to tackle the biodiversity crisis.  It’s called the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and it could see the 196 countries at the conference committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.  As biodiversity declines with unprecedented speed, the new global agreement could see 196 countries commit to protecting vulnerable ecosystems. Photos: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal The unfinished framework includes draft targets to eliminate subsidies harmful to nature, increase conserved areas, ensure effective management of land and waters that respects and safeguards the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities and recover and conserve species at risk of extinction. Reuters reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to attend the conference, but most heads of state are not expected to be there and some fear that could undermine ambition.  Still, there is hope that COP15 could be nature’s “Paris moment,” a reference to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change reached in 2015.  What does the biodiversity crisis look like in Canada? About 80,000 species, from minute bacteria and viruses to grizzly bears and blue whales, are known in Canada.  Currently, 685 of them are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as either locally extinct, endangered, threatened or of special concern. Many more are at some degree of risk across Canada, but not yet afforded special protection under the act. Coal mining in southeast B.C. has destroyed high-elevation grasslands and polluted rivers with selenium. Photo: Callum Gunn Vast stretches of forest have been clear cut in Canada, devastating habitats relied on by numerous species. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal / The Canadian Press Biodiversity loss is taking a toll on communities across Canada. Drastic declines in salmon and caribou, for instance, have impacted First Nations’ food security and cultural practices. The federal government has promised action to save nature. Canada, alongside other G7 nations, committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. The government also set interim conservation targets to protect 25 per cent of land and waters by 2025. And, last year, the government allocated $4.1 billion to protect nature — including $340 million for Indigenous-led conservation. What role can Indigenous-led conservation play?  In Canada and elsewhere, there is a long history of harmful colonial conservation practices. Colonial governments forcibly removed Indigenous Peoples from their lands, made it illegal to harvest traditional foods and medicines and prevented them from using long-standing stewardship practices to care for lands, water and wildlife. Today, there is growing recognition from some of those same governments — as well as the international conservation movement — of the important stewardship work Indigenous Peoples have undertaken for millennia. Caribou herds have experienced dramatic declines in B.C.’s Peace River region, where First Nations are leading a maternity penning effort to bring one herd back from the brink. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal “When Indigenous Peoples are holding the pen, the rate of conservation is usually much higher,” Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which supports Indigenous-led conservation, told The Narwhal.  Globally, 80 per cent of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity can be found on Indigenous lands.  In Canada, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are leading conservation efforts through the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. Indigneous protected areas have multiple benefits, from advancing reconciliation and ensuring Indigenous communities have greater influence over the future of their lands, to conserving biodiversity and helping Canada fulfill international commitments. Courtois said Indigenous Peoples bring the notion of responsibility to the table. “Very simply, for example, we have a right to feed ourselves, to hunt, but if we hunt to extinction then we’ll no longer be able to feed ourselves,” she said. At the same, she said, Indigenous Peoples bring a focus on collective interests. “Because our rights are collective rights, I’m responsible for my grandchildren’s ability to survive in this landscape as much as I am responsible for my own,” she said. “Bringing that to the table just changes the dynamics of the conversation and it’s no longer just about maximizing exploitation for the moment.” Eighty per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found on Indigenous lands but more funding is needed to support Indigenous stewardship on the ground. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / The Narwhal In September, Trudeau said at a pre-COP15 event in New York that “if we do not involve Indigenous Peoples every step of the way in fighting for protection of our planet and biodiversity we’re not going to get there,” he said. Yet most federal conservation funding is directed to federal departments and provincial and territorial governments. Moving forward, Courtois said more financial support must be directed to Indigenous Peoples to enable stewardship work. What is Canada’s role at COP15? China holds the COP15 presidency and was initially set to host the conference. The country’s strict COVID-19 policies resulted in the conference being moved to Montreal, where the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity is based. More than 10,000 international delegates are registered for the meetings, according to the secretariat. As Montreal prepares to welcome thousands to the city, residents have been warned to expect a heavy police presence and transit detours. Trudeau has acknowledged the important role of Canada — the second largest country in the world — in global efforts to protect biodiversity. In New York, he said: “If Canada and the other largest countries in the world don’t step up hugely, all the smaller countries around who are leading on this charge won’t be enough either.” How much nature do we need to protect? Canada and more than 100 other countries have already committed to the ‘30 by 30’ goal to conserve 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030 under the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.  The coalition led by Costa Rica, France and the United Kingdom is pushing for the goal to be formally adopted as part of the new global biodiversity agreement.  But even 30 by 30 is the bare minimum needed to stave off biodiversity loss. Grasslands, a refuge for many at-risk species, are among the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal Kelp forests are home to a diverse array of marine species. Photo: Shane Gross / The Narwhal Up to 50 per cent of land and waters may need to be conserved to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services globally, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, head of biodiversity at the United Nations, said this month the 30 by 30 target will likely be adopted as part of the global framework. She cautioned, though, that agreement on the target will depend on whether negotiators can agree to include safeguards for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. “How their rights will be protected, their land rights, their culture, their Traditional Knowledge, their livelihoods, all that … will need to be part of the package of the 30 by 30 [target],” she said at an online media briefing. What are the key issues to watch at COP15? Addressing harmful subsidies and dramatically increasing financing to support nature could be among the key sticking points at COP15. The world spends around $1.8 trillion a year to subsidize activities that harm nature, according to a report from coalitions of business and conservation groups focused on sustainability. As governments are wrestling those subsidies down, they need to redirect that cash flow to protect biodiversity. Investments in nature-based solutions must at least triple by 2030 to combat climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification, according to the United Nations’ 2021 State of Finance for Nature report. Right now, most funding for nature-based solutions is spent domestically by the world’s wealthiest countries, according to another United Nations report focused on G20 spending. That calculus needs to change too.  Significantly more funding is needed to support conservation and restoration efforts, such as Pacheedaht Nation’s project to restore salmon habitat in the Gordon River estuary. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal Moving forward, those wealthy countries need to spend more money to conserve nature at home and abroad. Proportionally, most of it needs to go to developing countries, the report said.  How new protected areas are managed will be another important issue at the conference.  Courtois said Canada is poised to be a global leader on Indigenous-led conservation. But significant new funding and innovative financing models are needed to support work on the ground. Creating new protected areas can’t just be about drawing lines on a map to meet international targets, she said. Systemic change is also required. “The reason why we’re at a place where we’re having an extinction crisis, where we’re feeling all of these climate impacts, is because we haven’t had a comprehensive look at what our relationship is with those landscapes. And that’s the gift that Indigenous Peoples can offer … a new way of looking at our place in the world.” What are the main stumbling blocks to achieving Canada’s biodiversity goals? Reaching agreement among 196 countries on strong targets is just one hurdle in this race to save biodiversity. With an agreement in hand, each country will be tasked with ensuring its own laws, policies, practices and budget allocations align with the new biodiversity framework. Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, an environmental organization, said governments tend to use international conferences such as COP15 to make “showy speeches” and offer “platitudes about how much they care.” Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change of Canada, says that Canada has the chance to show the world how it can address the biodiversity and climate crises at COP15 this year in Montreal. Photo: Selena Phillips-Boyle / The Narwhal Without action from the provinces, including from new B.C. Premier David Eby, Canada will struggle to meet its international biodiversity commitments. Photo: Province of B.C. / Flickr In Canada, where major gaps in legislation have allowed biodiversity to be eroded, more action is needed. But too often, governments fail to implement the necessary changes to live up to their commitments, she said. Without their buy-in, Ottawa will struggle to meet its international commitments. Canada’s Species at Risk Act, for instance, only applies automatically on federal lands. The Yukon and four provinces, including B.C., do not have stand-alone laws to protect at-risk species. “If we don’t change the legal framework in Canada, these goals can’t be achieved,” Dawe told The Narwhal. B.C. — home to the most at-risk species in the country — relies on a piecemeal approach that fails to protect nature and leaves species and ecosystems vulnerable to harm, according to a new report commissioned by the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club BC.  The groups are calling for B.C. to develop overarching biodiversity legislation in partnership with First Nations. Without such changes, Dawe said Canada’s goal to reverse the loss of biodiversity by the end of this decade will be “absolutely unattainable.”  Does Canada ever meet its international environment targets?  At the last major conference in 2010, countries agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to tackle biodiversity loss. By 2020, the parties aimed to cut the rate of habitat loss by at least one-half, ensure all fish stocks are managed sustainably and to conserve 17 per cent of land and inland waters and 10 per cent of oceans. Canada doesn’t have a great track record of meeting its international environmental commitments, but the country did protect more than 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020.  There was less progress on land. By the end of 2021, 13.5 per cent of land and freshwater were conserved — still short of the 2020 goal. Globally, none of the Aichi targets were fully achieved. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? The climate and biodiversity crises are intricately connected and that’s starting to be recognized.  Even if the world is able to keep global warming to 1.5 or 2 C, most species on land will see their ranges shrink, increasing extinction risks, according to the UN’s 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity. Each degree of warming puts life on Earth in greater peril. An estimated five per cent of the world’s species would be at risk of climate-related extinction at 2 C, the report says. Sixteen per cent could be lost if the Earth warms to 4.3 C. There’s still time to prevent the worst case scenario of both the climate and biodiversity crises if the world commits to “transformative” change. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal At the same time, old growth forests, tidal marshes, wetlands and other ecosystems store massive amounts of carbon. When these areas are destroyed, so is their ability to help fight climate change. It’s a vicious circle. Climate change threatens biodiversity and as biodiversity declines climate change gets worse. The light at the end of this pretty scary tunnel is decision makers are finally seeing the links. We saw that at the climate COP27 where there was a day dedicated to biodiversity and we’ll see it again at the biodiversity COP15 where nature’s role in combatting climate change is likely to be recognized in the new framework.

No one knows what “nature-based solutions” are

Amelia Moura, science program manager at Coral Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit, swims by a coral “tree” in the organization’s offshore coral nursery. Regrowing reefs helps safeguard coastal communities from flooding during hurricanes. | Jennifer Adler The environmental movement has a buzzword problem. Last week, at the UN climate conference in Egypt, the Biden administration made what was supposed to be a big announcement: America is going all-in on nature-based solutions to fight climate change, at a cost of more than $25 billion. The announcement drew little attention. Most major media outlets didn’t cover it, other than Fox News. Even some climate experts I spoke to hadn’t seen it. Perhaps that’s because the phrase “nature-based solutions” is vague, and no one really knows what it means. “Is vinegar a nature-based cleaning solution?” one researcher joked with me. Plus the Biden announcement itself didn’t detail exactly how it will spend the billions. Alex Brandon/AP From left to right, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a tree-planting event on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting on November 16, 2022 in Bali, Indonesia. This points to an enduring problem with environmental policy: it’s littered with vague terms that, while trying to encompass everything, end up meaning nothing. It’s not just nature-based solutions but jargon like “regenerative,” “climate smart,” “nature positive,” “resilient,” and the OG buzzword “green.” These terms sound inspiring and often refer to important actions — and it’s a good thing that governments are talking about climate-related policies at all. But they typically don’t have universally agreed-upon definitions, and as a result, the public (and even some experts) don’t understand what they mean. That also makes them vulnerable to exploitation by companies that want to appear at the vanguard of climate action, according to Molly Anderson, a professor of food studies at Middlebury College. “The vagueness makes the terms very open to greenwashing,” said Anderson, referring to marketing that misleads the public into thinking something is more environmentally friendly than it is. “A lot of it is just branding.” Clear definitions matter, especially as countries and companies are pushed to curb or reverse their impacts on ecosystems and the climate. It’s hard to hold them to account if you don’t know what they’re doing, experts say. “If we’re trying to say the world should be doing things differently than the status quo to meet climate goals, or nature goals, or socioeconomic development goals, we need to be really clear about what it is that we’re proposing or promoting,” said Richard Waite, a food researcher at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a DC-based think tank. So, let’s get clear: What do these buzzwords mean, how are they exploited, and what should we be using instead? Nature-based solutions, loosely defined Nature-based solutions refer to different ways of addressing a particular human challenge by protecting, restoring, or better managing nature. Does that help you understand it? If not, we have something in common. First, what is nature? In this context it usually refers to ecosystems like forests, grasslands, or coral reefs, that provide various benefits, such as water purification and flood control, which scientists often refer to as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are typically synonymous with “benefits.” And what about the challenge? Most commonly, nature-based solutions appear in the context of climate change and its symptoms, like intensifying heat waves and storms. So, they target different ways to reduce emissions, cool down the landscape, or safeguard coasts, using plants or animals. That could include protecting old-growth trees that store immense amounts of carbon, restoring coral reefs, which can help control flooding during hurricanes, or helping farmers keep more carbon locked up in their soil. It could also include bringing back beavers, which are heroes during a heat wave. Alex Brandon/AP President Joe Biden spoke at the UN climate conference known as COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 11, 2022. In the last decade, nature-based solutions have become a key part of corporate and government climate strategies. (The oil and agriculture industries, which are heavily linked to environmental destruction, often tout their endorsements of nature-based strategies.) One 2020 analysis found that nearly two-thirds of countries that signed on to the Paris climate agreement included nature-based targets in their adaptation and mitigation strategies. This brings us to Biden’s announcement last week. At COP27, his administration released a “roadmap” to put nature-based solutions at the center of US climate policy. It includes five recommendations for federal agencies, from increasing funding to developing new policies, in support of nature-based solutions. At the same time the roadmap is both highly technical and vague. Among other policies, the roadmap calls on government offices to “accelerate the permitting process for projects that use nature-based solutions.” It also encourages the government to integrate nature-based solutions into federal buildings — of which there are more than 300,000. “Embedding nature-based features, such as green roofs, can increase facilities’ lifespans and lower operating costs,” the roadmap says. To help, the administration released a guide to existing programs it considers to be nature-based: They run the gamut from prescribed burns in the Sierra Nevada to restoring populations of oysters along the Louisiana coast. But because so many different activities qualify as nature-based solutions, it’s hard to know exactly how the $25 billion will be spent. What these terms leave out Because they’re so broad, terms like “nature-based solutions” describe a wide range of actions whether or not they actually help reduce climate change or the loss of biodiversity, said Anderson of Middlebury, who co-authored a recent report that critiques the use of terms like nature-based solutions. Some nature-based solutions don’t work that well. Large tree planting campaigns, for example, are often promoted by countries and companies as nature-based solutions, yet in many cases they fail, or even harm local communities. Again, that’s why details matter. “Any rubbish can be branded as nature-based nowadays,” Teresa Anderson, a climate policy coordinator at the NGO ActionAid International, told Carbon Brief. “The term is so vague I could probably cut down a tree, whittle it down to a stick, wave it at the moon and call it a nature-based solution.” Christian Ender/Getty Images A tree nursery in Aimorés, Brazil. Many “carbon offsets” are another set of nature-based solutions that don’t always end up protecting nature. These offsets are schemes wherein companies try to balance out their carbon footprint by protecting or restoring carbon-rich ecosystems. A common criticism of offsets is that they allow for business as usual, according to a recent report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (Anderson is a co-author). In other words, companies can continue polluting as long as they also protect some trees. (This is one reason why some Indigenous advocates decry the idea of nature-based solutions.) The simplicity of these terms can also obscure important tradeoffs, Waite of WRI said. Consider the term “regenerative.” Companies often use it to refer to farming practices that restore farmland and make it more like a natural ecosystem. That sounds great. But those actions sometimes reduce the amount of food that a farm produces — and as we look toward 2050, the planet will have more mouths to feed, not fewer. So, in some cases, making farms more environmentally friendly could mean countries will have to convert more natural habitats elsewhere to farmland. The big question is how do you address climate change, stop biodiversity loss, and make sure everyone has enough to eat? Not with regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions alone, Waite said. We’ll also need to drastically reduce food waste, eat less animal meat, and make other changes to the food system. (WRI has a useful overview of how to meet global hunger demand while protecting biodiversity and the climate.) Zeroing in on what companies and governments are actually doing Is there an alternative? Molly Anderson argues that companies and governments should use terms with more legitimacy, such as “agroecology.” In the food world, agroecology — a form of sustainable farming rooted in Indigenous knowledge — has a widely agreed-upon definition and set of principles, Anderson said. “True food system solutions emerge through global, deliberative, democratic processes, and agroecology is the best solution that meets that criteria,” Anderson has said. Yet agroecology is still a pretty wonky term and certainly not consumer friendly. Other experts suggest we need to evaluate these programs on a case-by-case basis instead of trying to fit them into big, flashy buckets. Useful projects to protect or restore ecosystems usually sell themselves and can inspire the public, no matter what you call them, said Jen Hunter, an ecologist and resident director of the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Northern California. “Did you know that mangroves in intertidal areas can buffer storm surge in a way that can protect low-lying coastal development?” Hunter said. “That stuff is legitimately interesting to people across the board without tagging all of these sort of buzzwords onto it.” Which brings us back to an important point: Many nature-based solutions are worth celebrating. They help build back critical ecosystems. And again, it’s important that governments and companies are talking about them at all. But if a company or government says it promotes nature-based solutions or another buzzy climate phrase, it doesn’t mean much on its own.

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