Synergising climate and biodiversity agendas is an imperative challenge for the century
The restoration of ecosystems is crucial to achieving climate mitigation targets, and this is reflected in the recent global and EU ambitions for nature restoration. As a major contributor to biodiversity loss, agriculture in the EU must shift to restore agroecosystems so that they can provide benefits for biodiversity and climate. Carbon farming can help achieve this goal if standards integrate adequate safeguards and ensure net positive biodiversity impacts.
On 19 December 2022, at the COP15 in Montreal, 196 countries historically agreed on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which sets global biodiversity targets to stop and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. In coherence with the proclaimed UN decade for ecosystem restoration, the new framework aims to restore 30% of degraded ecosystems globally (on land and sea) by the end of the decade.
In anticipation of COP15, Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, emphasised that the restoration of ecosystems will play an essential role for keeping the global mean temperature below critical levels: “these [greenhouse gas emissions reduction] pathways rely on the continuing capacity of nature to operate as a carbon sink and to buffer against the worst impacts of climate change. 1.5°C is not a goal. It is a biophysical limit. Nature is one of the best climate solutions for remaining within that limit. An ambitious global framework for biodiversity at COP15 that addresses root causes of decline of the global commons is urgent and necessary”. (Greenfield, 2022)
The critical importance of ecosystem restoration is reflected in the level of ambition of the EU agenda. The recently proposed Nature Restoration Law establishes a 20% restoration target for EU land and sea by 2030 and will be extended to all areas in need of restoration by 2050. These ambitions stem from the realisation that healthy ecosystems are vital for the well-being of our society and are a cornerstone for achieving both climate and biodiversity objectives.
Indeed, nature restoration can significantly contribute to climate change mitigation efforts by enhancing ecosystems’ carbon sequestration and storage capacities while reducing some significant land-based carbon emissions (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2019). Hence, safeguarding biodiversity is an efficient way to control carbon emissions. In the EU, wetlands, forests, and grasslands are the ecosystems that naturally store and sequester the most carbon.
While healthy wetlands have the highest carbon stock per unit of any terrestrial habitat, most drained peatlands under agricultural land use in Europe emit significant amounts of carbon each year (EU Member States reported emissions of 92.3 million tCO2e in 2020, which is likely an underestimation). Agricultural land emits around 60 million tCO2e per year: EU cropland emits 50.2 million tCO2e per year while grasslands (95.2 Mha) are a smaller source of 10.9 million tCO2e per year (European Environmental Agency, 2022).
In addition, agriculture in the EU is the largest contributor to biodiversity loss, including through conversion of natural ecosystems into agricultural land, intensification of management in long-established cultural landscapes, release of pollutants, and value chain impacts. The restoration of agroecosystems therefore, not only can re-establish their natural carbon cycling and storage capacities, but also provide benefits to biodiversity.
Carbon farming refers to the management of carbon pools, flows and GHG fluxes through farm management practices that aim to deliver climate change mitigation in agriculture. These practices include: managing peatlands, agroforestry, maintaining and enhancing soil organic carbon on mineral soils, livestock and manure management, and nutrient management. Shifting public funding and the fast growth in carbon farming mechanisms not only provide new incentives for farmers to mitigate climate change on farm, but also provide opportunities for the protection and restoration of native ecosystems, with corresponding gains for biodiversity.
Therefore, ensuring that carbon farming mechanisms deliver biodiversity co-benefits is essential considering the dependence of agriculture on ecosystem services that are essential to the fertility and productivity of agricultural ecosystems.
In a report co-authored by Ecologic Institute and IEEP, we demonstrate that despite both the potential benefits and risks of carbon farming for biodiversity, most of the current carbon farming mechanisms fail to safeguard biodiversity and incorporate approaches to ensure net positive biodiversity impacts. We identify challenges and opportunities for implementing standards for biodiversity into carbon farming mechanisms and propose requirements to ensure that carbon farming standards enhance and safeguard biodiversity, alongside delivering climate change mitigation.
European Environmental Agency. (2022). Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2020 and inventory report 2022. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/annual-european-union-greenhouse-gas-1
Greenfield, P. (2022). ‘Paris agreement’ for nature imperative at Cop15, architects of climate deal say. The Guardian. https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/16/paris-agreement-architects-urge-leaders-to-reach-deal-at-cop15-biodiversity-talks-aoe
Masson-Delmotte, V., Zhai, P., Pörtner, H.-O., Roberts, D., Skea, J., Calvo, E., Priyadarshi, B., Shukla, R., Ferrat, M., Haughey, E., Luz, S., Neogi, S., Pathak, M., Petzold, J., Pereira, J. P., Vyas, P., Huntley, E., Kissick, K., Belkacemi, M., & Malley, J. (2019). Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. www.ipcc.ch