Restoring ecosystems through nature-based solutions can significantly cut carbon emissions: UNEP report

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Nature-based solutions (NBS) present strong potentials to address current social and environmental challenges such as climate change, according to a new report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP said that carbon is naturally stored in the Earth’s ecosystems highlighting that preventing the loss of carbon sinks from them can address climate and biodiversity emergencies. It identified the five ecosystems that can benefit from NBS such as forests, peatlands, farmlands, oceans and coasts, and cities.

The report underscored that locally appropriate actions focused on restoring ecosystems can significantly contribute to cutting carbon emissions by a ‘significant proportion’ up to 18 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050, and thereby mitigate climate change.

It further recommended that well-designed solutions which consider the benefits beyond carbon such as supporting local and indigenous communities address social needs as well. For example, the REDD+ mechanism (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus the sustainable management of forests, and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks) has provided a major knowledge resource and experience in terms of protecting these ecosystems.

Tim Christophersen, Head of Nature for Climate and Coordinator of UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration noted UNEP’s knowledge and experience of 10 years designing forest solutions for people, climate, and nature through REDD+ are now being applied to other ecosystems. “Now we can apply that knowledge to other ecosystems, to ensure that climate investments in nature have a high integrity and impact,” he remarked.

Protecting, managing, and restoring forests, according to UNEP, provides about two-thirds of the total mitigation potential of all nature-based solutions as forests cover more than 30 per cent of the planet’s land, despite massive deforestation and degradation. Proper management which includes sustainable harvesting and community management offer social and environmental solutions.

However, peatlands are considered the most potent natural carbon storage although they may be covering only three per cent of the world’s land, its capacity to hold soil carbon reaches nearly 30 per cent. Peatland protection also does not cost much in terms of preserving carbon stocks while conserving plant and animal species and adds benefit to flood mitigation.

Farmlands on the other hand presents greater benefits to humanity by ensuring healthy soil and thus producing more bountiful yields. Nature-based solutions for farmlands include sustainable grazing, crop rotation and minimum tillage. Effective farmland management can also reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and cut energy use during farming. 

For oceans and coasts, mangroves planting and protection of salt marshes and seagrass beds not only advances climate mitigation, but also protects communities from storm surges and rising sea levels. Ensuring healthy coastal environment through the propagation of mangroves also enhance marine life habitats and thereby support sustainable fishing and livelihoods of coastal communities. 

Sustainable management of cities and promoting nature-based solutions to improve the lives of inhabitants can also be a key contributor to reducing carbon emissions in urban communities, which continue to expand across the world. Municipalities are exploring nature-based ways of developing infrastructure such as creating more parks, restoring urban lakes and streams, and encouraging the use of sustainable building materials. Promoting cycling and other means of sustainable mobility are also supporting efforts towards healthier lifestyle of people.