What is ecosystem-based adaptation, and why should we be implementing it? The thirteenth episode of Not Cool explores how we can conserve, restore, and manage natural ecosystems in ways that also help us adapt to the impacts of climate change. Ariel is joined by Val Kapos, Head of the Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme at UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Center, who explains the benefits of ecosystem-based adaptation along with some of the strategies for executing it. Val also describes how ecosystem-based adaption is being used today, why it’s an effective strategy for developed and developing nations alike, and what could motivate more communities to embrace it.
Topics discussed include:
- Importance of biodiversity
- Ecosystem-based vs. engineered approaches to adaptation
- Potential downsides/risks of ecosystem-based adaptation
- Linking ecosystem-based adaptation to other societal objectives
- Obstacles to implementation
- Private sector acceptance of ecosystem-based adaptation
- National Determined Contributions
- Importance of stakeholder involvement
References discussed include:
A lot of ecosystem-based interventions are lower cost. They tend not to be as expensive as building big things with metal and concrete. So if you're thinking about coastal defense, for example, or flood control, it's actually a lot cheaper to manage flood plain ecosystems to help absorb floods than it is to build massive engineered flood control mechanisms.
~ Val Kapos
Ariel Conn: Hi Everyone. Welcome to Episode 13 of Not Cool, a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. Today we’ll be hearing from Valerie Kapos about some of the things we can do to use natural ecosystems to both help bolster communities in preparation for climate change, but also how those same systems can help us mitigate the problem of global warming.
Val is Head of the Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The programme addresses the interactions between climate change and biodiversity, including the impacts of climate change and climate-related policies on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the contribution of ecosystems to climate change mitigation and to societal adaptation to climate change. Val's role includes overseeing the work of the programme's team, and working with governments, collaborators and funders to develop new projects that meet their needs.
Val holds a PhD in Tropical Forest Ecology from Washington University, Missouri. She spent 15 years researching in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Val, thank you so much for joining us today.
Val Kapos: Thank you for having me.
Ariel Conn: So you work for the UNEP-WCMC. And before we get too far into this interview, I was hoping you could just talk a little bit about what that organization is and what your role is.
Val Kapos: Absolutely. That mouthful acronym, UNEP-WCMC, actually stands for the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre. We're a branch of the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, which is actually in Cambridge. And we have responsibility for helping UNEP to address those issues that relate to the natural environment and particularly to biological diversity.
We often describe ourselves as an organization that works at the science policy interface. So we generate, collate, analyze data and information to try to make it available in forms that support decision-making as it affects the management and the status and the future of nature and biological diversity.
Ariel Conn: I want to jump into this idea of biological diversity real quick because we've recently, in the last couple of months, seen a report come out showing that biodiversity was at incredible risk. And I was wondering if you could explain why biodiversity is so important.
Val Kapos: Because it's essentially the fabric of our natural world on which we depend fundamentally. Lots of people would argue that biological diversity — the diversity of life on Earth at the level of species, ecosystems, and within species — has incredible intrinsic value, that just as a matter of principle, it should persist and we shouldn't be damaging it. And I personally would agree with that.
But in addition to that, biological diversity provides a really strong underpinning for people and their livelihoods and wellbeing and actually quite a lot of the economic activity of the world as we know it today. It is also fantastically important in securing our resilience in a changing world; And biological diversity underpins the resilience of both nature and society as we confront climate change and other forms of environmental change. So that's the short answer for why biological diversity is so important. One could go on at length.
Ariel Conn: So your focus, if I understand correctly, has been looking at biodiversity from an ecosystem perspective. Is that fair to say?
Val Kapos: I'm an ecologist, so I tend to think in terms of ecosystems, and I worked on systems ecology rather than ecology of individual species. But my current role is in coordinating UNEP-WCMC's work on climate change and biodiversity. By that, we mean both the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and the impacts of climate-related policies on biodiversity, but also the role that biodiversity plays in underpinning our efforts, our societal efforts, to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
And all of that leads me to think especially in ecosystem terms, but also in species terms. Particularly when we're talking about impacts, we often think more in terms of species; When we're thinking about that role of nature in underpinning our wellbeing in the face of a changing climate, we often think more in terms of ecosystem function and ecosystem services.
Ariel Conn: I think that connects to work that I want to ask you about that you've been doing on ecosystem-based adaptation. If I was understanding it correctly, and I may not have been, it sounds like by rejuvenating our ecosystems, we can better adapt to climate change.
Val Kapos: Essentially, yes. So ecosystem-based adaptation is something actually that people have been doing for years, which is using biodiversity and ecosystem services to help them adapt to a changing environment — in this case, climate change. The important thing about ecosystem-based adaptation is that it's not the only solution, obviously, to adapting to a changing climate. But we are increasingly recognizing the importance of ecosystems in supporting our own adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change as part of an overall strategy for adaptation.
So if we look at what's coming towards us in terms of climate change, and we look at the hazards and challenges that we're going to have to address in any given place or for any given population of people, our understanding is that ecosystems offer at least part of, and in some cases all of, the solution to being better able to withstand those pressures that are going to come from a changing climate.
Ariel Conn: I'd like to get into some examples so that people can ground themselves.
Val Kapos: Absolutely. It's very easy to talk about this in broadly theoretical terms. A lot of ecosystem-based adaptation, and you mentioned this earlier, is focused on restoring ecosystems. So the things that most people may have heard about will have been in the context particularly of managing ecosystems on coasts to help protect us from rising sea levels and coastal storm surges. So that would be restoring or indeed managing, for example, mangroves and coral reefs, so that they provide coastal protection.
Salt marshes are another ecosystem that actually help significantly to dissipate the effects of storm-driven waves, for example, and therefore reduce coastal flooding. They can absorb quite a lot of the impact of storm surges. Restoring forests generally affects the hydrology, affects the way that changes in precipitation affect the landscape, and particularly managing or restoring forests on slopes also plays a significant role in both reducing flooding or reducing peak floods.
Water is better absorbed by forested landscapes than by, certainly, concrete and also other more disturbed landscapes and is therefore released more slowly, reducing flood impacts. Vegetation also, for example, helps to reduce the rates of sedimentation. We've always seen pictures of really bad gully erosion and runoff taking soil away.
Well, that soil ends up in hydroelectric dams and rivers and urban water sources. If we have an increase in intensity of precipitation — as we expect from climate change in a lot of parts of the world — those kinds of processes of flooding and sedimentation will become an increasing pressure. Managing ecosystems is actually one of the best ways to try to reduce the impacts of that intense precipitation.
Ariel Conn: In those examples that you just gave, I guess it wasn't clear to me: Were those all examples of restoring an ecosystem, or is some of that making changes to the ecosystem to help it be more stable?
Val Kapos: Restoration and management. In some cases, it's restoring where it's been converted and it isn't there anymore, or it's been degraded by activities — ranging from logging to fire to agricultural incursion. But we also need to think about the way we manage nature, the way our actions affect the ability of natural systems to survive climate change themselves.
Perhaps to illustrate what I mean, you can think about sea level rise, and the fact that mangroves, which are forests that grow on the edge of marine systems and need a certain amount of salt water, can't survive in the sea. They need to have their feet in salt water or mixed brackish water, which means that they need potentially to retreat from a rising sea level. Part of our management of mangroves needs to make sure that there is space for the system to expand landwards. And if a mangrove fringe is sitting in front of a massive pile of concrete or a hugely developed area and there is no space for landward migration, then the resilience of that mangrove itself is at risk.
When I talk about restoration and management, I'm talking about conserving and managing ecosystems as they are so that they're in good condition and can deliver the services that we need; I am talking about restoring ecosystems that have been degraded so that they deliver the services that we need more effectively; And I'm talking about making sure that we're doing an adequate job of conservation and management to ensure that those systems have their own resilience to climate change.
And that ranges from looking at the context and the systems-scale situation of the ecosystems that we're most interested in: So, the mangrove landward migration example is one; Another is thinking about patches of, let's say, forest that are potentially more vulnerable in a hotter, drier environment than if they are part of a continuous area of forest. So it covers the full range from conservation management to restoration to understanding the systems context of how these ecosystem sit and recognizing very firmly and thoroughly what it is that they deliver and offer.
Ariel Conn: I live in the Western US, and last summer in the US and many other countries, we saw horrible fires. Are there processes that we could be implementing that would help prevent or at least mitigate some of the fires, or is that separate?
Val Kapos: Well, I think it's a little bit separate, only because the fires are affecting the ecosystems themselves. And I think fire is one of the things where it's actually a little bit hard to think about how we come up with ecosystem-based interventions that reduce fire risk. And yet, we know which things we do to ecosystems that increase fire risk. And we know that, for example, in the tropics, we know that increased logging moist forests increases their susceptibility to fire. We know this. It's very well documented that you open the canopy, the understory dries out. We know that there's fire in the environment anyway from the way that people manage land and occasionally from naturally caused, lightning-generated fires. And we know that fire spreads much more easily in logged forest than in intact rainforest or moist forest.
In the more temperate contexts, similar things. It's a little bit more contentious because, I mean, fire management is a hugely charged issue, and people talk about, for example, reducing fuel accumulation by taking dead wood out of forests — which is great for reducing fire risk, and it's not so great for many of the species that persist in forests that depend on dead wood for their ecological niches.
So there are always tensions, but there are certainly things that we can do in the way that we manage ecosystems that reduce fire risk. Even in the context of a changing climate, on the whole, keeping forests and other ecosystems intact — just the presence of vegetation tends to keep the system moister. But there are certainly things we can do in the way we manage ecosystems that help to reduce fire risk.
Ariel Conn: Okay. So a lot of the work that I've read of yours, the focus seems to be applying eco-based adaptation to more impoverished locations. I was interested in knowing what the reason for that focus is.
Val Kapos: It's a cocktail of reasons, and I don't actually think that focus is entirely correct. And there's actually quite a lot of evidence — and in fact, the US Army Corps of Engineers has produced a whole handbook on using ecosystem-based approaches for infrastructure, for example. So I don't actually think ecosystem-based adaptation is only applicable in impoverished locations, but I think there's some good reasons why it's come up first and foremost for those locations, or why we see greater uptake.
One of them is that in impoverished locations, people tend to have a greater dependency on natural resources, a much closer relationship with the natural environment in the first place — which on the one hand increases their vulnerability to climate change, and on the other hand increases what they stand to gain from using ecosystem services, from having ecosystems managed in a way that delivers them more benefits in the context of climate change.
Val Kapos: The other reason we see it used in impoverished areas is, frankly, that a lot of ecosystem-based interventions are lower cost. They tend not to be as expensive as building big things with metal and concrete. So if you're thinking about coastal defense, for example, or flood control, it's actually a lot cheaper to manage flood plain ecosystems to help absorb floods than it is to build massive engineered flood control mechanisms. There's also quite a lot of work on putting those two things together, so using ecosystem-based approaches to complement engineered approaches.
The other thing that's really important is that when we use ecosystem-based approaches, for example, to manage flood, they often have multiple additional benefits. Using ecosystems to manage floods also often will deliver product that local people need, and this is particularly the case in the context of impoverished communities. Communities need firewood. They use forest species as what we sometimes call famine foods, so as backup foods: Even if they don't use wild food in their day-to-day diet, it's there as a buffer.
Forests or other ecosystems can be culturally really important. They can purify water as well as containing flooding. We often talk about ecosystem-based adaptation as delivering multiple benefits, and those multiple benefits on the whole are more immediately important to impoverished communities that depend very closely on natural resources. But those arguments stand across all economic ranges, I would argue.
Ariel Conn: Your description of the cost especially was really interesting. In the US, we're struggling to get politicians and communities to both recognize the importance of taking action and then also just taking action. And I would think that if we can present cheaper ways of trying to, say, minimize the impact of sea level rise, that communities even in the US would appreciate that. And then also, additionally, things like — my understanding is using concrete is actually one of the most — I don't know if it's energy intensive?
Val Kapos: It has a big carbon footprint. It has a huge carbon footprint. So that certainly adds to the cost writ large — not just dollar cost, but environmental cost — of some of those engineered approaches. I think actually you raising the carbon cost of concrete flags one of the multiple benefits that I should have mentioned and didn't, which is that most of the ways that we use ecosystems to help support adaptation also contribute significantly to climate change mitigation. They tend to take carbon out of the atmosphere.
So ecosystems, as you know, store carbon; Destroying ecosystems releases carbon; And restoring ecosystems locks up more carbon. Often when we use or manage ecosystems to provide adaptation benefits, they're also simultaneously delivering mitigation benefits. Not necessarily huge ones; Sometimes big ones. But that link between adaptation and mitigation, when you're talking about using ecosystem-based approaches, is really fundamental.
Ariel Conn: I have this question for you about how we can help communities embrace ecosystem-based adaptation. And when I wrote that, I was originally thinking of these more impoverished communities. But as we're talking, I guess my question now is how can we get all communities to embrace this more, and is there any reason that we wouldn't? Are there downsides?
Val Kapos: There's not much in the way of downsides. There are some risks, because we don't have as much evidence as we would like about the effectiveness of some ecosystem-based approaches for some levels of impact, and we know that, for example, restoring ecosystems can take time. So if you're concerned about hurricane vulnerability this year, certain things that you might do to restore salt marshes along the Gulf Coast that you would hope would reduce storm surge — they're not going to be finished this year, which is why I emphasized earlier the potential for combining approaches sometimes.
But I don't think there is any reason why you wouldn't want to see people assess ecosystem-based options any time they identify a need for climate change adaptation. And for me, that is one of the bits of holy grail that I'm chasing. Every time we identify an adaptation problem, we should be asking the question, "How much of this problem can we address by managing ecosystems," because that ecosystem management brings so many additional benefits.
Now I think part of the way that we get communities to embrace this, it's going to depend on the community. It's partly making those multiple benefits clear. It's making the linkages between that ecosystem management and a whole set of societal objectives, which might be clean water; It might be good mental health — there's really good evidence that, in cities, access to green space improve people's mental health.
There's a whole set of societal objectives that ecosystem-based approaches can contribute to. Making that contribution clear and explicit for different audiences is a big part of getting wider acceptance. Similarly, there are some challenges around mobilizing the technical understanding into the right places. So on the one hand, it's the communities and how interested are they — and in a city, you will always have groups which see the advantage of green spaces and other groups which think it's a waste of space and we should be doing things that are somehow commercially more exciting.
There are always those things, but there is also a question of getting the ecological understanding into the hands of the planners and the engineers and the politicians and the finance sector and indeed the private sector. And we're actually seeing increasing attention to ecosystem-based approaches in the private sector: increasing recognition that if you're running a hydroelectric company and you're actually worried about your water supply in the long term to keep those turbines running, at least part of your strategy needs to be about managing the vegetation in the catchment for the hydroelectric basin and that that will also reduce the sediment loads, which will, therefore, reduce the damage to your turbines. You're beginning to see that whole chain become much more part of mainstream thinking in the sector.
Ariel Conn: So is it reasonable to say that one of the reasons we haven't seen ecosystem-based adaptation more, at least in part — if not large part — is just due to lack of information about it?
Val Kapos: There's a big awareness component. I'm not sure it's information; It's information in the right places. There are some challenges with scale. As you say, a lot of what we know about ecosystem-based adaptation comes from work with impoverished communities. It comes from relatively local scale work. And we have challenges, which I think are largely policy and finance challenges rather than necessarily practical challenges, around how we scale up those interventions.
And there's been quite a lot of work done on, for example, managing coastal systems, and how and where and how connected your efforts on management need to be to deliver the scale of benefit that you need to make it an attractive option to, let's say, a state government. I wouldn't say it's nascent. We actually have quite a lot of experience, but there are some outstanding questions around scaling, technical capacity in the right places and the right sorts of people. So some of it is awareness in the engineering community and actually trying to bring sets of expertise together to deliver the solutions that we need. But we do have quite a lot of experience that we can build on, and I'm hopeful that we'll see that scaling start to happen.
Ariel Conn: Are you seeing signs that that is starting to happen?
Val Kapos: Yes. The thing I raised just now about the fact that companies are beginning to recognize the benefits that they get — now what we need is we need those companies to tell other companies. There's a sharing of experience in practice within and between sectors and types of actor, and we are seeing signs that this is happening. Some of it is in the guise of companies wanting to say, "Look how green we are." That's fine. There's nothing wrong with that.
If the end result is the same, if they're managing ecosystems to make the ecosystems healthier, they're getting a benefit from it and they're getting green credentials. Great. I can't see how that's a loss. I mean, if they're doing nasty things on the side and using this to distract attention from doing nasty things on the side, that's arguably something to be concerned about, but actually this is what we want.
Companies, governments, I mean, you're seeing it in the US and elsewhere. A lot of city governments get this, and they are taking action on climate because they're sitting on these heat islands. And they get it both in terms of the urgency of action, and they get it in terms of the role of ecosystems or ecosystem components: tree planting, having green spaces and blue spaces in cities. They get that, and we're seeing that not only increase in frequency, but we're seeing it propagate.
There are networks of cities which talk to each other, and they're sharing experience. So, we are seeing some propagation. There's a long, long way to go, and there's a long way to go before we get to that point of, "I have a climate problem. Let's see whether I can use an ecosystem to fix it," rather than, "I'll just call in my engineers, and let's see what we can build to fix it."
But we're heading slowly in that direction, and we're seeing some progress all over the place, from those private sector companies to financial institutions to particularly local government. Civil society has always been active in this, NGOs have always been pushing this, but we're now starting to see it extend beyond the tree-hugging community to the hardcore, practical, "How do I deal with climate issues?" And that's what I think we'd like to see.
Ariel Conn: These ecosystem-based adaptation options also come up in the Paris Climate Agreement, if I understand that right?
Val Kapos: They do. There's nothing binding. The Paris Agreement includes text that recognizes the importance of ecosystems for both mitigation and adaptation. It flags the importance of natural carbon sinks for storage, and indeed removal, of greenhouse gases. So that's the mitigation piece. And it notes the importance of ensuring ecosystem integrity to help address and help people adapt to climate change.
That then translates into countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement. So the big thing about the Paris Agreement is countries have to make commitments under it, to say what are they going to do to help achieve its objectives. And there have been any number of reviews of those commitments. And what we know from reviewing those commitments is nearly half of them say something about using ecosystems, conserving ecosystems, managing ecosystems in relation to their objectives on adaptation. They don't necessarily say, "We're going to do ecosystem-based adaptation," with that label. But the importance of ecosystems in meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement is very clearly signaled in about half of the nationally-determined contributions that have already been put forward.
As we speak, countries are working on updating and revising their nationally-determined contributions in preparation for next year when the Paris Agreement actually comes into force. And I suspect we will see an increasing attention to the role of ecosystems — particularly on the adaptation side, but also on the mitigation side. There's already a very high incidence among developing countries. I think we'll also see an increasing attention in developed countries who can afford to buy concrete but actually might choose not to.
Ariel Conn: So can you give some examples? I think we've touched on some of this a bit already with things like scalability, but what can countries do to help ensure that they're implementing these efforts effectively?
Val Kapos: One really important thing is to take a systems view — to understand, at least at the landscape scale, how action in one place can affect what happens in another place. And this is actually where, very occasionally, some kinds of adaptation — including ecosystem-based adaptation — go wrong: because people don't actually think about what's happening downstream. They think about the community they're trying to deal with here. It's less likely to happen in ecosystem-based adaptation, but it still does happen, and you want — something you do to reduce flooding here can increase flooding further down. So taking that systems view is particularly important.
Understanding what climate impacts are anticipated is particularly important, so actually starting with a good understanding of both the expected impacts and the vulnerabilities and the risks that people are suffering in the context of those projected impacts; Understanding the role that ecosystem services can play in increasing resilience or reducing risk. So that's all the background stuff.
Building on experience and good practice from other places: not doing this stuff in a vacuum, but recognizing that there is experience to draw on. But then when you're actually implementing, engaging stakeholders so that you're not just coming in from outside and saying, "This is what you need. Here. We suggest you do this." But actually drawing on local knowledge, engaging stakeholders in the conversation — and those stakeholders range from the people on the ground right up to the people in the government — so that people build a vision of what it is that you're trying to achieve and an understanding of how particular interventions — if you're restoring some bit of high-altitude grassland, what difference does that make for water supply in the city?
That's a specific example, where restoring high-altitude grasslands makes a big difference to the quality and quantity of water that's available for city intake. But there are the communities around the grasslands who use the grasslands for grazing livestock and therefore, will be affected by management approaches. If you do it right, you can do it so that you also increase their resilience.
So involving a full range of stakeholders and actually having a really good understanding of the potential impacts on each of those sets of stakeholders, and then drawing on their knowledge — they actually know how to manage those grasslands often. They don't always do it, because it takes resources to do it differently. But they know a lot about those grasslands, and they know a lot about their own requirements, and they know a lot about how the systems work.
They are not always managing things in the best ways, but certainly listening and drawing on that knowledge and on their concerns is a really fundamentally important part of designing and implementing effective ecosystem-based adaptation. So systems view, taking account of multiple benefits, and also good climate projections and the impact those projected changes are likely to have on people, building on existing experience, and involving stakeholders. And I'm sure I've forgotten a couple, but those are things I would argue are really very important.
Ariel Conn: So I have two questions for you, really, that I want to end with. One is, what do you think we need to see from people to address climate change, from individuals and/or policymakers more broadly — or specifically, with respect to ecosystem-based adaptation? We'll start there.
Val Kapos: Action. We do need to stop talking and start doing. I would like to see ecosystem-based adaptation integrated into the way people think about responding to climate pressures, climate risks. So I've said that at least three times, but I think it's important that people start to consider what the natural world has to offer at the same time as they look for other options, and that we evaluate these options together; We look at complementarities.
I think also in the context — particularly, you raised policymakers: in addition to action and policy and spending money, it's actually recognizing the links between our societal objectives. There are links between conserving biological diversity and addressing climate change and achieving the sustainable development goals. Those links are clear in the way the sustainable development goals are structured, but actually getting policymakers to recognize that and to look for those — I sometimes refer to synergies as the S word, because I'm kind of tired of hearing about synergies, but they really are there.
Those links are there. There are links between biodiversity conservation and climate change. There are links between climate change mitigation and adaptation to climate change. So actually trying to take a more holistic view, so that you can choose options that deliver on those multiple agendas. And often, those options will involve conserving and managing the natural environment, and making use of it in ways that help us towards a whole series of objectives. So recognizing those linkages, I think, is really important — and then actually taking action.
Ariel Conn: I like that answer. I don't think anyone else I've talked to yet has made that point, and I think that's a really important point.
Val Kapos: The image that just flashed through my mind is not pulling the rug out from under our own feet by trashing the natural environment. There is a risk that as we degrade and fragment ecosystems, we actually make things very, very, very much worse — rather than building on what nature can give us to help us to survive what is undoubtedly a crisis.
Ariel Conn: Well, on that note, what makes you hopeful for the future?
Val Kapos: Well, what makes me hopeful is actually the rising groundswell of voices — not just me, or you and me, or me and my tree-hugging friends, but the world is beginning to recognize this is a crisis. We're also seeing increasing recognition of those links and synergies. Not as much as I'd like; It'll never be as much as I'd like. But it is beginning to come up increasingly how intertwined those agendas are.
And that gives me hope, because I do think that people will then start to see care for nature in terms of enlightened self-interest, as well as something that has an intrinsic value and motivation — which for many of us it does, but not for everyone. So as we start to see these linkages, as these linkages come up the international agenda, that does give me some optimism. So the increasing sense of urgency and the fact that we are seeing people increasingly recognize links between sets of societal objectives does give me some grounds for optimism. They just need to do more of it.
Ariel Conn: All right. Well, here's hoping people will be doing more of it. That's certainly my goal.
Val Kapos: Good.
Ariel Conn: Well, thank you so much.
Val Kapos: You're very welcome.
Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, a climate podcast, we’ll hear from Filippo Berardi of the Global Environment Facility about some of his work looking at carbon finance and the economics of climate change.
Filippo Berardi: You have to decide at what point you are going to require people to comply with the cap and trade regulations. Is it the power producers, the operator of the industrial facility, or the distributors of the fuel, or is it general public? So you always have to strike a balance between what's feasible to implement and what is most environmentally sound from a coverage system of the different economic sectors.
Ariel Conn: As always, if you’ve enjoyed this show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and maybe even leave a good review.