Help nature to help ourselves: IPCC report shows climate change is hitting wildlife hard

 Aerial photograph of Medmerry (c) Environment agency

Today’s blog is written by Fiona Dobson, RSPB's International Policy Officer, on what the new climate change report means for nature and people in a changing world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched today (Feb 28th) the latest and most powerful report highlighting that climate change is being felt across the world by both people and nature, and the costs of impacts are projected to continue to rise as the climate warms further, with people in marginalised communities most at risk. 

Yet we cannot afford to lose hope. Alongside taking urgent action to decarbonise and mitigate climate change, by investing in the right conservation actions we can help nature to thrive along a trajectory of a changing climate and deliver vital ecosystem services, such as flood protection, which help us to adapt in the face of inevitable change. 

What are the IPCC reports, and why are they important?

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the UN Environment Programme to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change. Now undertaking its sixth assessment, the IPCC is releasing a series of reports, on the physical science basis of climate change (released in August 2021), its impacts (released Feb 28th), and pathways to mitigate climate change (due in April 2022). These reports are hugely important because not only do they shine a spotlight on the latest understanding of our changing climate, but they are signed off by the 195 member countries of the IPCC. This means that governments are publicly stating an agreement of what science is telling us, and hence the reports provide a key opportunity to call for coordinated, global action in response

What does the report say on nature?

Today’s report provides the latest information that climate change is having severe impacts on nature and the ecosystems that we depend on. The report finds that there has been extensive deterioration of the structure, function, resilience, and natural adaptive capacity of ecosystems, and that about half of species globally have moved towards the poles or to higher elevations. There have also been mass mortality events, and losses of species from local areas due to increased heat extremes. For example, we are seeing increased warm-water coral bleaching and mortality, losses of kelp forests, and increased drought-related tree mortality.

The report highlights that species are being pushed to extinction, with climate change – alongside other drivers including land-use change, overexploitation and pollution – placing intense pressure on species and ecosystems. The report stresses that these losses are irreversible, identifying the first species extinctions driven by climate change – notably the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent whose habitat (the island of Bramble Cay in the Great Barrier Reef) was destroyed by rising sea levels.

Today’s report also updates our understanding of the impacts of climate change on people, and stresses that the destruction of ecosystems by humans leads to an increase in the vulnerability of people. It highlights that the loss of ecosystem services has serious long-term effects, especially for those who are directly dependent on ecosystems for the provision of their basic needs. A key finding of the report is that safeguarding biodiversity is fundamental for climate resilient development.

The IPCC has stressed that there are limits to what nature can naturally adapt to and contribute in terms of both mitigation and societal adaptation. Hence nature, must be better protected, restored, and supported to adapt as the climate warms.

The IPCC report also finds that adaptation is severely underfunded. We must see greater investment in adaptation efforts, including action taken with, through and for nature.

This all builds greatly on what we already knew – that climate change and biodiversity loss are deeply intertwined, and have serious effects on people across the world. Through the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ agreed at COP26, countries recognised that climate change has adverse impacts on nature, and they recognised importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems in meeting our global climate change goals.

Taking action with nature in the face of change

It is immediately clear from today’s report that change is happening fast, and we’ll continue to see these changes. Whilst action to mitigate climate change is essential to achieve Net Zero quickly, we must also do much more to actively prepare for the changes we’re already witnessing. And that means helping nature to have the space to adapt and thrive in new ways, as species shift ranges and different ecosystems develop.

The IPCC report points to some of the ways in which we can help nature to adapt, including through the conservation, protection, and restoration of ecosystems – stressing that in order to be effective, these actions will need to be increasingly responsive to ongoing changes and plan for future changes in ecosystem structure, composition and species’ distributions.

What does adaptation look like in the UK?

The UK Government recently released its Climate Change Risk Assessment. This assessment finds that adaptation actions taken to date have not been sufficient in meeting the increasing risks from climate change – indeed, the ‘adaptation gap’ has widened in the last five years. Top of the priority list is ‘risks to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species’, with for example about a third of species studied at high risk of disappearing from the areas they are currently found in due to warming temperatures. The assessment makes clear that urgent UK-wide action is required to put nature on a secure footing today and for the future.

This RSPB/WWF report, demonstrates the critical role Nature-based Solutions can play in helping the UK adapt to climate change, and explores the opportunities and barriers to their implementation.

Adaptation action on our nature reserves

The RSPB is changing the way it delivers nature conservation to reflect the changing needs of species and their habitats, as part of a nature-positive approach across the UK.

Adapting to climate change has been integral to our nature reserve management for many years. Our pioneering work on coastal realignment, such as at our Medmerry nature reserve in East Sussex is a prime example, where with the help of the Environment Agency, we allowed the sea to break though old defences and let nature, through the restoration of salt marsh habitat, provide cost-effective flood risk management that helps wildlife as well as people. Find out more on p52-55 of this report on ‘Nature-based Solutions in Action’. Today’s IPCC report cites taking action through coastal wetlands as a key opportunity for protecting against coastal erosion and flooding.

We’re also responding in smaller ways, such as adjusting grazing to longer growing seasons. At places like Winterbourne Down we have created large S-shaped banks that allow butterflies to find their required conditions whether summers are hot and dry, or cool and moist. At Frampton Marsh we have developed water management systems that can cope with the increasingly wider range of rainfall and water availability. See the pages under the ‘living with climate change’ section of our website to find out more.

This work is underpinned by changes we are already seeing, as well as the Met Office’s climate change projections, which provide a detailed look into the future trends of climate conditions at each reserve.

Through our wider advocacy work, we’re fighting for sustainably managed landscapes across the UK, to create vital nature-friendly areas between nature reserves, helping species to move between them in a changing climate.

Local and global action

To respond to the IPCC’s latest report, we need to take action to adapt at both a local and global level.

The IPCC report comes out ahead of a set of key meetings under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). These meetings will be crucial to pave the way for a successful global framework, to be agreed at the CBD COP15 later this year, to halt and reverse the decline of nature by 2030. By signing off the IPCC report released today, governments are signalling their acceptance that climate change is having unprecedented impacts. Governments must now take urgent action and invest in adaptation measures. The CBD negotiations provide a critical opportunity for governments to agree a robust framework for nature to deliver the transformative change we need. Another convention, the Bern Convention, already requires urgent transformative action in managing nature.

In summary...

The findings of today’s report might seem daunting. We are facing immense, unprecedented global and local impacts from climate change. But we cannot afford to lose hope, and must instead double-down and increase our efforts for a better world. Through concerted action from local to global scale, we can act to make the best of the world we are now in, for nature and for people.

Supporting and working with nature is critical for both our wellbeing and our ability to adapt to the changing climate. At the RSPB, we are working hard to respond to the IPCC report’s findings and trial forward-thinking action to showcase the ways we can adapt whilst helping wildlife and people to live in a brighter future in an ever-changing world.

Look out for upcoming blogs about progress towards Convention Biological Diversity COP15, as a key opportunity for ambitious global action.

Further reading:

Reade RSPB's recent report on Nature-based Solutions in UK climate adaptation policy:

RSPB's RSPB news article on today's IPCC report.