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Native ecosystems: our climate superheroes

Our native ecosystems are climate superheroes

Hercules Creek – Image: Steve Attwood

Native ecosystems: our climate superheroes

Summary

“Healthy functional ecosystems help reduce climate change vulnerability and disaster risk by:

  • Reducing physical exposure to hazards by serving as protective barriers or buffers and so mitigating hazard impacts, including in wetlands, forests and coastal ecosystems; and
  • Reducing socioeconomic vulnerability to hazard impacts: sustain human livelihoods and provide essential goods such as food, fibre, medicines and construction materials, which strengthen people’s resilience to disasters.” Convention on Biological Diversity

The problems

The Canterbury Regional Biodiversity Strategy (2008) aims for ‘no further loss of significant habitats and ecosystems…’ And yet, land clearing, primarily for agriculture, continues to destroy our native forests at a staggering rate. New Zealand has lost 13,000 hectares of native habitat in just the last five years (Fig. 1), exposing us to multiple threats including lost critical life-supporting ecosystem services and release of carbon dioxide from soils into the atmosphere.

Between 2012 and 2018, New Zealand indigenous land cover area decreased by 12,869 hectares (NZ Stats). Most natural ecosystems also store carbon through soils and the formation of peat, however, this is ignored under the current Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The 2021 Climate Commission report (09 June) acknowledges that the current ETS incentives plantation forests over new native forests. Yet this is still the situation. These ongoing losses of biodiversity and increasing carbons emissions are occuring at a time when they must be rapidly reduced. It’s also undermining our greatest allies in our ability to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Hercules Creek – Image: Steve Attwood

Our native ecosystems are climate superheroes

Summary

“Healthy functional ecosystems help reduce climate change vulnerability and disaster risk by:

  • Reducing physical exposure to hazards by serving as protective barriers or buffers and so mitigating hazard impacts, including in wetlands, forests and coastal ecosystems; and
  • Reducing socioeconomic vulnerability to hazard impacts: sustain human livelihoods and provide essential goods such as food, fibre, medicines and construction materials, which strengthen people’s resilience to disasters.” Convention on Biological Diversity

The problems

The Canterbury Regional Biodiversity Strategy (2008) aims for ‘no further loss of significant habitats and ecosystems…’ And yet, land clearing, primarily for agriculture, continues to destroy our native forests at a staggering rate. New Zealand has lost 13,000 hectares of native habitat in just the last five years (Fig. 1), exposing us to multiple threats including lost critical life-supporting ecosystem services and release of carbon dioxide from soils into the atmosphere.

Between 2012 and 2018, New Zealand indigenous land cover area decreased by 12,869 hectares (NZ Stats). Most natural ecosystems also store carbon through soils and the formation of peat, however, this is ignored under the current Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The 2021 Climate Commission report (09 June) acknowledges that the current ETS incentives plantation forests over new native forests. Yet this is still the situation. These ongoing losses of biodiversity and increasing carbons emissions are occuring at a time when they must be rapidly reduced. It’s also undermining our greatest allies in our ability to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Fig. 1: Fig. 1: Between 1991-2018 some 40,800ha of native forests, scrub and shrubands were lost. Other ecosystems have suffered equally widespread losses, including indigenous grasslands, which lost 44,800 ha. (p47 DOC1) (Image: DOC/Christie)

The solutions: protect, restore, rebuild

“Restoring a third of the areas most degraded by humans and preserving remaining natural ecosystems would prevent 70% of projected extinctions of mammals, birds and amphibians. It would also sequester around 465 gigatonnes of CO2—almost half of the total atmospheric CO2 increase since the Industrial Revolution.”   Strassburg et al, 2020.

It can take decades to centuries to reinstate natural forests, but there are cost-effective and proven strategies to achieve this via EbA (Ecosystems-based Adaptation explained below) using these strategies:

Protecting what’s left of existing ecosystems is the most cost-effective in terms of dollars, labour (voluntary and paid), biodiversity, and cultural outcomes. This immediately prevents large amounts of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, acts as a shock absorbers against the impacts of climate change, and provides ongoing life-supporting ecosystem services.

Enable regeneration of damaged areas. While this is costlier and takes longer that protecting what’s left, because we have lost so much, regeneration is an essential stratgey in helping to mitigate the projected impacts if climate change across Aorearoa by:

  • Reducing the impacts of flooding (see rivers).
  • Reducing the short-term and delaying the long-term impacts of rising sea levels and storm surges (see coastal dunes and estuaries).
  • Reducing the impact of heatwaves (see land use)
  • Reducing the impact of wildfires, which predominantly take hold in non-native forests (see the video Hinewai Reserve as a case study in wildfire on the Banks Peninsula, and ‘the problem with pines‘).
  • Restoring ecosystem services including pollination, nutrient recycling, filtering out contaminants including heavy metals and nitrates (see ecosystem services).
  • Improving water quality (see rivers and wetlands).
  • Improve the quantity and qualility of mahinga kai that’s also safe to eat and use (see rivers, wetlands, and estuaries).
  • Draw CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it back in the ground (see the carbon cycle).

The best approach is to restore or replace lost ecosystems on the borders of existing native ecosystems, as intact ecosystems already host native birds and invertebrates. These creatures do the heavy lifting by spreading seeds, pollinate young plants, and helping to restore native soils, which provide the essential yet generally overlooked foundations for natural ecosystems.

Nature-based solutions can be most effective when planned   for longevity and not narrowly focussed on rapid carbon sequestration.”  IPCC-IPBES  June 2021

Use well-understood and proven strategies to protect and manage existing and regenerating areas. This usually involves a combination of some or all of the following, depending on the type of ecosystem and its location:

  • Fencing to keep out livestock and pest herbivores including (depending on the location) rabbits, deer, pigs, tahr, chamois, and wallabies. The costs of these pest species to Aotearoa’s nature and climate is staggering.
  • Trapping to kill predators, which kill native birds and invertebrates needed to provide and restore essential ecosystem services.
  • Weeding this includes removing wilding pines and other introduced plants strangling our wetlands, forests, and rivers.
  • Retaining gorse in strategic location. This pest plant is much hated by agriculturalists, but it’s proven to be a surprisingly good nursery plant for regenerating native forests. This has been amply demonstrated at Hinewai Reserve, Banks Peninsular.

Reinstating ‘wet’ ecosystems including dune systems, saltwater marshes, seagrasses, kelp forests, rivers and wetlands is labour intensive but it takes less time for them to mature than forests. Newly restored wet ecosystems also absorb far higher quantities of CO2 and far faster than many established ecosystems (Video 1). Restoring rivers lost to agriculture and weeds will not only provide clean and plentiful freshwater, it will also reduce the risk and scale of flooding and deliver more gravel to the coast to replenish coastal margins increasingly at risk of erosion and rising sea levels.

“The conventional wisdom is that you harvest flood water in the winter and store it until it’s needed (for agriculture) in the summer. However, floods are required to carry gravels to the coastal zone and if there’s not enough gravel, the waves get hungry and start eroding the land.” Dr Scott Lanard, NIWA

Incentivise the protection and restoration of native ecosystems as an absolute priority under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Disincentivise through economic mechanisms (primarily the ETS) the conversion of land currently used for other purposes (such as agriculture and plantation forestry ) into any uses other than restoring native ecosystems.

Make policies more robust so that non-compliance with land clearing rules can readily be prosecuted.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA)

The following is an extract from the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity:

“Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) should be integrated into broader adaptation and development strategies to maintain and increase resilience and reduce vulnerability of ecosystems and people to adverse effects of climate change.

EbA is the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. EbA aims to maintain and increase the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of people and the ecosystems they rely upon in the face of the adverse effects of climate change. There are various interpretations of EbA, but all share the rationale of working with nature, and most converge on the principle of sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems, as part of an overall adaptation strategy.

Examples of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction include restoring coastal vegetated areas such as mangroves to protect shorelines from storm surges; managing invasive alien species linked to land degradation and that threaten food security and water supplies; and managing ecosystems to complement, protect and extend the longevity of investments in hard infrastructure.

Video 1: Quick and simple explanation how healthy ecosystems are the most cost effective and efficient way to address climate change

In many cases, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction activities are the same as EbA activities implemented to reduce disaster risk. For example, maintaining and improving the functionality of protection forests is also a key activity within some countries’ climate protection programmes. Because of the important role of forests in mitigating the risks posed by natural hazards, these programme aim to improve the stability and functionality of forest stand structures, foster adapted species mixtures, promote natural regeneration, prevent forest fires and/or control pests and diseases.”

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