More than trees please! Reflections on the UN Climate Action Summit in New York

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Entering the United Nations Headquarters you must walk across the Sustainable Development Goals set out as brightly coloured tiles across the forecourt, like some kind of pathway or ladder to success. It’s a good reminder of what António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, said in his opening speech – that these goals are inter-dependent – and that we will fail with all of them unless we effectively combat climate change. This was to be a Climate ACTION Summit and all speakers  – had just three minutes to make their point, announcing adopted targets, investment pledges and commitments to act. It was a fascinating rolling show!

While, strictly speaking ‘nature-based solutions are just one of many ‘Action Tracks’ in the climate agenda, the whole summit was essentially about redefining the relationship between people and nature.

With heightened energy and attention due to the climate strikes, angered youth protests and impassioned calls from young leaders, there was a sense of humility in the chamber, coming from an understanding that we have over-stepped the limits of harm. Time is running out. Denial, inaction, corruption and short-term self-interest in the face of the climate crisis is named as “evil” by our global youth. Now, extreme weather events, fires, floods and misery affect those who can least cope.

The UN Secretary General warned that “nature is angry!”. While at the same time, nature was also hailed by many as a critical part of the solution, in need of a major boost. Nature-based solutions are described by New Zealand as “an under-cooked piece of climate action” and by the UNE Secretary General as the most important Action Track, since it has been ignored for too long.

On reflection, despite the final summit outcome falling well short of what’s needed, there was quite a lot to feel heartened about. It was encouraging when one after the other, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Secretary Generals of UN agencies and CEOs of major companies showed their recognition that nature is full of potential to help us mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Disappointingly, many seem to equate nature with forests. There was little appreciation of the vital life support role that wetlands play or the massive threats to biodiversity through degrading the freshwater environment . There was a groundswell of support to better protect and restore ocean and coastal environments. The role of freshwater ecosystems in connecting and sustaining forests and the oceans needs more emphasis.  Only few speakers referred to whole landscape and system approaches, while we know that single habitat efforts will have limited impact.

And although the reality of grey infrastructure schemes still dominate the thinking and spending for city climate proofing, it is exciting to imagine that through the leadership of city mayors, new partnerships and innovations could turn this around in the coming decade. There is certainly a sense of mission in the city networks. The design-and-create, multi-functional blue-green infrastructure networks would do a lot to cool cities down, enhance local biodiversity, make attractive recreation spaces or provide local food, while reducing the carbon footprint.

There are also encouraging signs of countries committing to collective action, for example, to ensure that the vast peatland resource of the Congo basin is conserved. Its degradation would be an African tragedy that could have a destabilising effect across the continent, altering the rainfall patterns and triggering drought and conflicts.

The Sahelian Great Green Wall initiative did capture the imagination of African leaders but it is slow to be realised on the ground. But, through the adoption of a more community-based approach, that connects with local culture and green jobs, a powerful social movement is now developing across the continent. Communities are inspiring each other to act and this will help investments to flow.

At the United Nations Head Quarter

This all-African initiative could show the way to transformational socio-ecological change. And we – Wetlands International – are going to be part of it. The African Union has joined our Blue Lifelines for a Secure Sahel commitment and UNCCD supported our message on how re-greening the drylands must be linked with restoring “blue ecosystems” (like the rivers, lakes and floodplains), to secure water and food and to prevent further human conflicts rising.

Will this all be enough and in time? That is, of course, the big question. There were some 150 initiatives gathered by the NBS Coalition prior to the summit, but will these plus the current commitments from different nations, agencies and companies will amount to a wave of action for ecosystem recovery at the landscape scale? Will biodiversity recover or will we surpass the tipping points? And will it be a just result for the poorest and most vulnerable people?

These are deep concerns shared by many at the summit. The elephant in the room, that only the bravest dared to point to, is that to enable us to work with nature and not against it, we need to radically reform the global economic systems. And ensure that new trade deals don’t undermine progress. We did hear that the UK and EU are working towards a new sustainable finance system, that would ensure climate resilience investments and to screen risks of maladaptive developments. That sounds good. But meanwhile the fires are raging in the Amazon and in the peatswamps of Indonesia.

As a result of this summit – and especially the nature based solution networks and campaigns that we have joined, there is a fast growing movement for embracing and investing in nature. Wetlands International needs to step up to the challenge too.

Our people, our knowledge and experience and our broad partnerships, are needed the world over to show and guide HOW to make nature based solutions a reality across whole landscapes. We have to work hard and fast at all scales and with many sectors, nations, cities and communities.  We already have some great working models and approaches for this. So let’s also shine a brighter light on what works and extend our collaborations even further, so that others can magnify our successes.

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