‘Day of hope’ as US rejoins climate agreement

New chapter: “Good news for the world” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. © Kieran Dodds

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.

You Decide

  1. Will your generation be the one to save the planet?
  2. Can humans survive without the natural world?

Activities

  1. Make a poster to advertise a biodiversity scheme for your neighbourhood. What wildlife do you want to encourage or introduce?
  2. Write a presentation to create a National Park of Biodiversity. Consider the costs and benefits and present your idea in class.

Some People Say...

“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”

David Attenborough (1926 – ), British broadcaster and natural historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the climate crisis is a global problem that needs an international solution. In 1992, the UN held the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to tackle environmental destruction and climate change. Since then, there have been 25 more meetings and two major agreements at Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015. However, most experts say that the Paris Agreement will not be enough to prevent a 2C rise in global temperatures by 2100.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around carbon offsetting and its role in fighting climate change. Many countries, cities and companies plan to become carbon neutral, cancelling out their emissions with tree planting schemes. Critics say this is “greenwashing” and allows companies to continue to damage the environment without making more meaningful action. Others argue reforestation and carbon-neutral targets are both important steps in the right direction.

Word Watch

Paris climate agreement
194 countries and the EU, representing more than 97% of global greenhouse emissions, have signed the Paris accord. It commits signatories to keep temperature rises below 2C from pre-industrial levels.
Biodiversity
Scientists estimate there are around 10 million species on Earth, of which only 1.9 million have been identified.
Industrial revolution
19th-Century carbon emissions began the process of global warming, which accelerated rapidly after World War Two. This is known as the Great Acceleration.
Carbon neutral
The UN secretary general has called on all countries to declare a climate emergency until the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stops increasing.
Rewilding
These schemes can put conservationists in conflict with farmers and local communities, especially with the reintroduction of apex predators such as wolves, bears and tigers.
Carbon capture
Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere in plant photosynthesis. The world’s tropical forests store approximately 247 gigatons of carbon.
Green Belt Movement
Founded by Kenyan Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011), the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1977, the movement has planted over 51 million trees.
Eucalyptus plantations
The Australian tree is fast-growing and ideal for timber but replaces native species that provide food and habitat for other species.

Subjects

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