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‘Day of hope’ as US rejoins climate agreement

Is there still time to rescue nature? The US is returning to climate talks today, in a turning-point year for the planet. The situation is bleak, but scientists say nature CAN be restored. America is back. This morning, the US starts work once again as a full member of the Paris climate agreement, reversing Donald Trump’s decision to leave. Two global summits, delayed by Covid-19, will set the agenda. In May, a conference in China aims to draw up new targets on preserving biodiversity – after the world failed to meet all its previous goals. In November, Biden will join global leaders in Glasgow to agree on further measures to curb climate change. The challenge is enormous. A million species face extinction, 70% of ice-free land is now controlled or degraded by human development, and the planet has warmed by over 1C since the industrial revolution. “We have been abusing it as if we have a spare one”, says UN secretary general António Guterres. Scientists say we must become carbon neutral by 2050 to prevent a 2C rise and a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals”. More than 120 countries have committed to net-zero targets, including the world’s biggest emitter, China. Cutting emissions alone will not stop us “destabilising the entire planet” warns environmental scientist Johan Rockström. Protecting biodiversity is also vital. Campaigners want to secure an international agreement for a “30 by 30” pledge to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. But the UN Environment Programme cautions that “conservation is no longer enough” and we need to repair the damage already done. To highlight this issue, this year it will launch the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The aim is to return 3.5 million square kilometres back to nature in the next 10 years – an area the size of India. Projects underway include Europe’s biggest rewilding scheme in Lapland and a network of “wildways” to link animal migratory routes spanning Canada, the US and Mexico. Given the chance, ecologists say nature can heal itself. But the rescue plan goes further and recommends ecosystem engineering: reintroducing native wildlife, restoring water flows to wetlands and mass tree planting. As well as protecting biodiversity, the carbon capture of new forests could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third. Reforestation has been dramatically successful in some parts of the world. South Korea’s forests now cover two-thirds of the country and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement inspired the Trillion Tree Campaign, which has planted 13.94 billion trees worldwide. However, not all trees are equal. Eucalyptus plantations are good for carbon capture but poor at supporting biodiversity. Sustainability expert Bernardo Strassburg says projects must be “ecologically sound” and backed by science. But is there still time? “We have to be optimistic!”, says UN biodiversity chief Elizabeth Mrema. “We have 10 years to make a difference.” Is there still time to rescue nature? Tipping point Some say it is too late. International agreements never go far enough and are implemented too slowly. All 20 biodiversity targets set in 2010 were missed by 2020, while the rate of extinction and habitat loss increased. As humans move deeper into the world’s last wild zones, climate change is pushing fragile ecosystems beyond the point of no return. Others say there is still hope. It is not true that global action on the environment has never been successful. In the 1990s, an international ban on gasses causing a hole in the ozone layer reversed decades of damage. In the midst of widespread extinctions, the tiger, the European bison and the mountain gorilla have been brought back from the brink. KeywordsCarbon neutral - Another term describing net zero emissions. Carbon neutrality is when an activity balances out any emissions with carbon removal - effectively "neutralising" the CO2 emitted.

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