December 6, 2010
Coral reef credit NOAA

Photo courtesy of NOAA

“The ecosystem is our wealth.  If our ecosystem collapses, we have no economy… Ecosystem-
based adaptation is not a choice in Seychelles.”

Those are the words of Ronny Juneau, U.N. and U.S. Ambassador from the Seychelles, the archipelago island country in the Indian Ocean.  Seychelles’ economy is dominated by tourism dependent on pristine beaches and coral reefs, as well as fisheries.  Coral reefs are one of the most threatened ecosystems of the planet facing double threats from CO2 emissions – warming events that bleach corals, and ocean acidification that dissolves corals and prevent the formation of their exoskeleton. Ambassador Juneau was speaking to us in Cancun on ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation to climate change.

Say what? Well, ecosystem-based adaptation is two things really – protecting ecosystems from the impacts of climate change, and restoring and creating more naturally managed systems to protect our communities, infrastructure, health, water and food supply. Ecosystem-based adaptation is also about preventing harm to ecosystems from the actions we take to cope with the impacts of climate change.

One example of this approach is protecting and restoring mangroves in tropical coastal wetlands  – this prevents coastal erosion, helps trap sediment to build up coasts in response to sea level rise and provides a nursery ground for important fishery species. Another is protecting and restoring floodplain wetlands to provide water storage and flood protection instead of building more or higher dikes and dams.

Preventing harm to ecosystems is equally important to prevent the unintended consequences and loss of the services the ecosystems provide to people. For example, converting wetlands to agriculture may seem like  a good idea to expand agricultural production to increase food security.  However, such a move could increase society’s vulnerability to other threats, including loss of flood protection, loss of water quality and loss of wildlife habitat.COP16 Logo

Ecosystems are also an incredibly important component to the carbon cycle and to controlling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  The world’s land and marine ecosystems absorb a tremendous amount of CO2 that we emit into the atmosphere.  It’s estimated that U.S. forests suck up 10% of our emissions – that’s as much as our cars spew out!  On the flip side, the destruction of forests world-wide, particularly in the tropics, is responsible for up to a fifth of global carbon emissions.  So, we can’t solve climate change without also solving the biodiversity crisis and protecting ecosystems.

Developing ways to facilitate adaptation to the impacts of climate change, particularly for developing countries, is one of the chief issues being negotiated in Cancun during this conference – how much funding needs to be provided to developing countries to assist in adaptation, how that money should be governed and prioritized and how to hold developed countries accountable to their funding commitments.  Very often these are the places that will be hit the hardest by the impacts of climate change, and will be the least equipped to deal with them.

Ensuring that ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation are considered in the development of adaptation plans and programs is vital if we are going to solve the climate crisis and protect lives and livelihoods, and the biodiversity and ecosystems we all ultimately depend on.

Learn more:

Read more from Noah in Cancun this week!

See how climate change is already impacting wildlife across the United States with our interactive map.

Follow Defenders of Wildlife