World Resource Institute

Do We Need to Adopt a Fundamentally Different Approach to Conserving Ecosystems and Their Services in a Changing Climate?

By Neville Ash, Chief, Biodiversity Unit, UNEP DEPI, former Head of Ecosystem Management, IUCN

Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 4: Must we fundamentally change course to conserve ecosystems in a changing climate?

This commentary considers the four papers submitted on the question of whether a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services is needed in a changing climate. The four papers provided helpfully varying emphases on the question at hand: Kakabadse reviews the challenges of managing water for climate-sustainable development; Locatelli and Pramova consider the role of forests for adaptation, and the necessity of adaptation for forests themselves; Munang, Mumba and Rivington examine the importance of ecosystems in addressing the dual challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation; and Ranganathan and Hanson propose new approaches and tools to meet food production and ecosystem conservation goals in a changing climate.

That this question has been posed by the World Resources Report is a sign of increasing recognition of the importance of the ecosystems on which we depend for both our daily sustenance and longer-term development, but also for responding to the additional challenges thrown at us by climate change. WRR 2010 is thereby providing an important contribution to this discussion, and the responses provided by the four sets of authors further our understanding of the challenges and solutions to ecosystem management in the future.

The last few years have seen a rapid increase in the recognition of the role of ecosystem services in responding to climate change. This is true both for mitigation – where, as Munang et al. point out, ecosystems provide almost all the solutions to carbon sequestration, and through their degradation are responsible for around 15-20% of emissions - and for adaptation, where the role of ecosystems in supporting vulnerable people, or “ecosystem-based adaptation”, has gained considerable recognition and momentum in policy and practice.

Approaches from the Past, Lessons for the Future

Despite the long history of implementing ecosystem-based adaptation (the only approach available to human societies to adapt to climate variation over most of the past 200,000 years) on the ground, the lessons learned and the science underpinning such interventions are only just starting to emerge. There are, for example, very few scientific references available for the authors of these four review papers to draw on. However, significant recognition has been given to the role of ecosystems in supporting people to adapt to climate change in various policy fora over the last couple of years.  At the international level, these have occurred, for example, in the international agreements and negotiations of the UNFCCC and the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD). At the national level, ecosystem-based adaption has been highlighted, for example, as a guiding principle for adaptation to climate change by the US Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. Many developing country National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs) also include explicit reference to ecosystem management activities as part of countries’ efforts to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Such policy recognition has been based on the increased understanding that ecosystem-based adaptation provides options that are available to many of the most vulnerable sectors of society – especially the rural, natural resource dependent poor, are cost-effective, and can provide multiple societal and environmental benefits, as many of the authors acknowledge. Adaptation activities based on ecosystem management can therefore provide “no-regrets” strategies, which have societal benefits regardless of those related to adaption, including for sequestering and storing carbon.

Conserving Ecosystems and their Services

Both mitigation and adaptation are essential ecosystem services, and both are only relatively recently acknowledged objectives for ecosystem management. With these climate-related objectives now added to the growing challenges of managing ecosystems for the wide range of other ecosystem services (including food and clean water as highlighted by Ranganathan and Hanson, and Kakabadse respectively), more integrated approaches are certainly necessary if we are to ensure the continued supply of ecosystem services in the face of climate change, and growing demand.

However, such approaches in themselves may not be entirely new. They build on existing experiences and lessons learned, for example from Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) as highlighted by Locatelli and Pramova, and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as illustrated in a number of examples provided by Kakabadse. However, the new challenges brought about by climate change require management cooperation across sectors, across scales, and with a long term, climate informed perspective.

Of course, as Locatelli and Pramova highlight, if ecosystems are going to continue to provide services through a changing climate, they themselves also need to adapt. Perhaps the most important priority for ecosystem managers in the light of climate change is therefore to address other, non-climatic stresses – habitat clearance and fragmentation, overexploitation, the spread of invasive alien species, and pollution – so that ecosystems can remain resilient in the face of climate change. Despite such efforts, in some instances, dramatic climate-induced changes in ecosystem structure and function can be expected.

Of course it’s not only the climate that’s changing – management objectives in the future need to ensure productive socio-ecological systems that are resilient not just to climate change, but a variety of global demographic, economic, and broader environmental changes. The tool proposed by Ranganathan and Hanson provides an excellent starting point for considering the broader range of ecosystem service management issues, and how they might be affected by climate and other drivers of change.

As the scientific basis of ecosystem-based responses to climate change remains nascent, it is especially important to monitor interventions and strategies to ensure we are learning from our successes and failures, and to scale up success stories. Sharing of experiences is an essential element of our future ecosystem management strategies, and efforts such as the Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network ( will help considerably to inform adaptation in the future.

Finally, as many of the authors recognize, ecosystem management needs to sit as part of the broader portfolio of interventions to respond to a changing climate. We will still need dams, intensive agriculture and industrial timber production in the future. Many objectives for responding to climate change and meeting the multiple needs for food, clean water and other services will require heavily modified systems. Certainly we need to be managing ecosystems not just as pristine habitats for wildlife, or protected areas, or even just as safety nets for the poor, but rather as productive landscape and seascape mosaics with multiple functions, and managed to ensure resilience for the wide range of ecosystem services on which we all depend in a changing climate.