Reaching 1.5°C – Nature in a warming world

(c) Mark Hamblin

Today’s blog is written by Melanie Coath and Beth Chamberlain in the RSPB’s climate policy team on how nature is impacted by rising temperatures and the political action needed to address the climate emergency.

Last week the headlines were rocked by the sobering news that for the first time, world temperatures have surpassed 1.5°C warming compared to pre-industrial levels for a full year. On the same day we heard further roll backs from politicians on their green commitments.

What does this mean for nature? And why is 1.5°C so significant? Well, last decade the IPCC warned that there will be a massive difference in the impacts of climate change between temperature increases of 1.5°C and 2°C, both on humans and on nature. Countries therefore agreed under the Paris Agreement to keep global temperatures to well below 2°C and “pursue efforts” towards keeping temperatures below 1.5°C. That the world has now spent a year above this threshold is significant indeed – both symbolically in that we are failing to meet the Paris goals, and in terms of the impacts we’re seeing right now. 

Nobody can ignore the impacts the devastating floods, wildfires and extreme heat have had on people across the globe over the last year. These extreme events also have huge direct consequences for wildlife that is already struggling to adapt to the incremental temperature increases we are seeing due to climate change. 

Kittiwake (c) Ian Francis

Millions of years of evolution have attuned species to survive in a certain set of climatic conditions. Therefore, every fraction of a degree’s change makes a big difference. Much-loved seabird species like Puffins, Guillemots and Kittiwakes are amongst the worst affected by climate change. As the waters warm, their food supply, such as Sandeels, moves northwards into cooler waters. Meanwhile their nesting sites on cliffs remain fixed. This makes it much harder for them to find the food they need to feed themselves and their chicks meaning many seabird chicks are starving and do not survive. 

Rising temperatures also affect how nature responds to the seasons more generally. Whilst most of us feel relieved at the first signs of spring, problems can arise when different species respond to seasonal changes in different ways disrupting predator/prey relationships. For example, Blue Tits time chick hatching to coincide with caterpillar emergence in the spring, yet changes to the climate can throw these two events out of sync resulting in nest failures.  

It’s not like we don’t have the solutions at our fingertips – we have all the technology we need to phase out fossil fuels and switch to clean sources of energy and restore carbon rich habitats – but we’re dragging our feet and we’re running out of time. Alongside a rapid switch to nature-positive renewable energy, protecting our woodlands, restoring our peatlands and re-creating our precious coast and marine habitats are important stepping stones to a future where the climate allows people and wildlife to thrive, harnessing their ability to store significant amount of carbon and support wildlife. 

What’s more, these nature-based solutions present a significant win-win approach because they also help us adapt to a warmer world.  Peatlands in good condition help slow the flow of water during storms; urban trees provide shade and retain moisture which helps cool our towns and cities during extreme heat; saltmarshes help buffer our coastlines and provide protection from sea-level rise. All of these benefits, and more, mean that nature-based solutions should be at the heart of the UK’s adaptation strategy. 

Whilst it is important to acknowledge that nature-based solutions are not a silver bullet and are needed alongside rapid decarbonisation, they are an incredibly powerful tool for helping to create a better future for people and nature.

That we’ve crossed the 1.5C threshold for over a year should be a final warning bell to us all. Nature can’t wait. Yet extraordinarily, we’ve seen politicians abandoning green pledges, policies and plans over the last days, weeks and months. We need be asking all our politicians to show us how they will be taking the action needed to secure a safe climate future for us, our wildlife, and the ecosystems on which we all depend.  

Three actions which policy makers could help shift the dial now are: 

Turbo charge decarbonisation and end fuel poverty by taking action on energy efficiency: establish a UK energy reduction strategy, re-establish the Energy Efficiency Taskforce, make a long-term funding commitment to improving household energy efficiency, and in England and Wales bring back plans to force landlords to upgrade energy efficiency in their properties.  

Building on the published National Adaptation Programme in England and those being developed in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, establish robust objectives and targets for adaptation across a range of sectors to support a clear roadmap for a climatically well-adapted UK with nature at its heart. 

Ensure that farmers are properly supported to deliver public goods, including actions that will help tackle climate change as well as mitigate against climate impacts such as drought and flooding, and recovering nature. This requires properly funded agri-environment schemes across all four countries of the UK – both at a farm scale and across wider landscapes.