Guest blog – Nature conservation and climate change: are we doing enough? by Olly Watts

Olly Watts has been with the RSPB for more than 25 years, involved with how climate change affects nature, and what the nature conservation should do about that, for much of that time.  He’s also been involved with peatland conservation for many years and is eagerly awaiting the end to using peat in our gardens.

He’s quite active cycling, running, swimming and hillwalking – not enough patience to be a good naturalist yet a love of nature and the outdoors has shaped a career in conservation. Twitter: @Olly1Watts

The Climate Change Committee’s new advice on climate risk is a massive, urgent wake-up call to government and across society that our climate risks are getting worse, and the gap in addressing them is getting wider. So how does looking after nature, its species, habitats, ecosystems and all the benefits they give us, fit into this big picture?

First, some context. This report is a statutory requirement of the 2008 Climate Change Act, undertaken by the government’s advisory body on climate change, the culmination of three years work involving over 450 people and 130 organisations. 

The headlines are stark: four of the top eight risks which the CCC shortlists as the key priorities for action are in the natural environment – terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species; soil health; natural carbon storage; and farming and forestry.

One of the most important of the report’s big messages is to adapt for a two degree Celsius world, and assess the impacts and changes of a four degree world.  We’ve now reached some 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperature, greenhouse gas emissions are rising again, our weather patterns are changing and the natural world has increasingly been showing the effects of this over the last thirty years, from seabird declines to the spread north of comma butterflies.

So how does our nature conservation response stack up to this challenge? There’s some action, certainly.  Both RSPB nature reserves and Natural England’s National Nature Reserves have climate change integrated into their management planning and there’s some innovative, forward looking practical action.  This includes wetland creation, coastal realignment and some on-site examples of adaptation management, such as the climate-adaptive butterfly bank at Winterbourne Down.  With Natural England, we published the Habitats Adaptation Manual several years ago and an expanded second edition last year. These have been popular downloads and are gaining wider use in practical conservation.  And there have been initiatives that will go some way towards building resilience to climate change if delivered at sufficient scale.  More than ten years on, the Lawton report’s four key principles of ‘bigger, better, more and joined’ conservation sites, are gradually being integrated into action on the ground, through land acquisition strategies and policy initiatives such as England’s Nature Recovery Network.

Creating S-shaped bank at RSPB Winterbourne Down: micro habitat and micro climate diversity for butterflies.  Photo: RSPB

Yet despite this, there’s concern that our conservation response is falling short of what’s required, and that the Climate Change Committee is correct in putting such a high priority to address climate change’s growing impact on nature.  Species climate envelope modelling from the early 2000s onwards shows huge shifts in where suitable conditions for species will occur and indeed, many species are already shifting distribution.  But this isn’t a simple march north, even if habitat requirements might be present in new climatically suitable locations – which they often aren’t.  Species communities will change, in both abundances and species composition, and gains and losses are already being seen.  Our nature sites will look very different and we need to develop both management and objectives to get the best from them for nature.  A new dynamism is spreading across the natural world with new climate conditions affecting nature, including increasingly uncharacteristic seasonal weather and growing frequency of extreme weather events.  

In this context, the overarching notion of nature recovery seems to be a false one, if it’s taken to mean bringing back the features of nature we’ve known to date. This will simply not be possible with the pathway of climate change we can expect for at least the next thirty years, and probably very much longer, before greenhouse gas emissions are brought to a standstill and a new set of climate and weather conditions settles into being more or less stable. 

The Climate Change Committee asks us, right across society, to adapt for a two degree world and assess the implications of a four degree world.  We must do this for nature too and embed it as a clear target and outcome in statute, policy, strategy and delivery.  We need to research and develop understanding and visions of what getting the best biodiversity outcomes might look like along the pathway of changing climate, and to start planning to deliver this without delay.  These things are actually already required of us through the Bern Convention.  And it would be good to see these adaptation measures clearly reflected in the post-2020 biodiversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

Is all this a bit challenging and even gloomy?  Well yes, it’s far from ideal.  Yet this is the world we are in, and about which we must be honest.   Climate change is here and now and will continue for some decades, under even the best emissions reduction scenarios.  So we need to prise ourselves away from the familiar and embrace the change we’re already experiencing, aligning nature and the pathway of conservation with the trajectory of climate change.  If we act boldly with knowledge, imagination, innovation and optimism, we can help nature to blossom and thrive, and our current situation will be remembered as the bad old days.  We can also help nature to play its part in reducing net emissions and of course, we must follow vigorous emission reduction pathways across society to prevent the worse scenarios materialising.  However, if we don’t quickly grasp the nettle of adapting to a two degree world, as the CCC advises, today will seem like a long lost bounty of nature that we remember fondly and with regret.

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