A real climate solution

Wetlands are incredible ecosystems.

Able to store huge amounts of carbon, they make an invaluable contribution to global biodiversity, water quality, flood management and human well-being. Yet historically wetlands have been overlooked, overexploited and underappreciated. This needs to change – and if we are to combat the ever-increasing threat of climate change, it is important that wetlands are placed front and centre.

Wetlands are found all over the world, from peatlands and tropical swamps to mangroves. As a Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, my research is focused on increasing awareness of them – their importance and benefits – globally. Through that, my aim is to achieve a level of protection, restoration and management for wetlands that can highlight them as a viable nature-based solution to climate change.

The United Nations Climate Change Convention (COP26) presents a unique opportunity to take a step in the right direction. It unites parties from across the world together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.

For the past year, I have been working as an Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) British Council Commonwealth Research Fellow. It has enabled me to work alongside 25 other researchers from across the Commonwealth and, over the past year, we have been targeting COP26 as the perfect place to highlight the importance stakeholder engagement and the protection of natural ecosystems.

<p>Aerial view of lush coastal wetlands in UK<br></p><p>Scott Davidson PR</p>
<p>Florida wetland, natural landscape.<br></p><p>

Scott Davidson PR<br></p>
<p>Mangrove trees along the turquoise green water in the stream<br></p><p>Scott Davidson PR<br></p>

The six reasons wetlands should be a key topic of conversation at COP26

  • Avoid further disturbance: There is a lack of understanding of the vital role wetlands play as a carbon sink, often due to outdated management strategies and policies. This leads to wetlands across the world continuing to be drained, disturbed, and destroyed for a variety of reasons. This includes housing developments, resource extraction and agriculture. In fact, nearly a third of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1970 to 2015 (report by Ramsar Convention). This loss of wetlands globally needs to stop.
  • Prioritize wetlands as a nature-based solution to climate change: The importance of wetlands as nature-based solutions to climate change has never been more important. If we can harness the natural ability of wetlands to sequester huge amounts of carbon, we can help improve our fight against increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. For example, recent work by myself and researchers from a variety of backgrounds looked at ‘Natural Climate Solutions for Canada’ (Drever et al. 2021) and we found the avoided conversion of wetlands could save nearly 15 Tg CO2e annually by 2030.
  • Restoration: We are currently within the UN Decade of Restoration 2021-2030. That has emphasised the message that by conserving and restoring wetlands, we not only improve our chances of reaching net zero, but can also contribute towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development goals (SDGs).

  • Financial needs: Although wetland restoration may not be as expensive as other nature-based solutions or engineering efforts to combat climate change, a lack of funding does present a large barrier. There have been big pushes towards peatland restoration here in the UK with the Scottish Government recently announcing £250 million to restore 250,000 ha of peatlands by 2032. But more is needed globally, and we need governments, NGOs and private funding bodies worldwide to invest in the restoration of these wetlands.

  • Co-benefits: Not only are these landscapes important in terms of their ability to store carbon, but they are incredibly important for biodiversity. water storage and quality and human well-being. They can also be useful in mitigating against coastal erosion. For example, salt marshes and mangroves worldwide can fight against the increase threat of sea level rise and extreme storm events.

  • A piece of the puzzle: The conservation and restoration of wetlands alone will not solve the climate crisis. However, it is important that governments and policymakers realise that we will not achieve the goal of net zero targets without the safeguarding of these ecosystem powerhouses.

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The importance of wetlands and peatlands is being showcased at COP26 via the Peatland Pavilion.

Ultimately, wetlands globally are some of our best players in the fight against climate change and the management and restoration of these ecosystems is imperative if we are to use them as a tool to mitigate and adapt against increasing pressures in the future.

For stakeholders and government ministers to make sustainable policy changes – both with regard to wetlands and terrestrial ecosystems in general – they need to be able to understand what is important. As environmental and climate scientists, we can often bombard stakeholders with high-level science or focus on an abstract metric of climate change (such as global temperature patterns) that is difficult to engage with.

I am hopeful that the research community and the next generation of environmental scientists can go on to provide guidance, inform decision-making processes and make significant and important changes.

Supporting COP26 – United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021

The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.

The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.