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Interview — Protecting nature in a changing climate: our actions must focus on resilience

Article Published 30 Sep 2021 Last modified 30 Sep 2021
5 min read
Photo: © Chiara Bonvento, REDISCOVER Nature /EEA
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From changes in species habitats and communities to water availability and flowering seasons, climate change impacts ecosystems and biodiversity. We asked Professor Dr Beate Jessel, President of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, about the links between biodiversity and climate change and what could be done to boost nature’s resilience in a changing climate.

How does climate change impact nature?

Climate change is introducing major changes to the living conditions of many species through rising temperatures, changes in precipitation distribution and more frequent extreme weather events such as heavy rain, storms, heat waves and droughts. This results in a shift in the ranges of many species and changes in their seasonality and the composition of species communities. As a result of the lower climatic water balance in summer, species in wetlands and water bodies are particularly endangered. Even deciduous trees were severely damaged or affected by the summer droughts of 2018 and 2019 in Germany.

For some species that previously occurred together in the same habitat, such as the butterfly scarce large blue (Phengaris teleius) and the prey species of its caterpillars, the great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), their respective climatically suitable habitats are shifting to different locations. This leads to a spatial decoupling and thus to a decline in the butterfly population. Similarly, temporal decoupling also occurs, for example when insects start to fly earlier before the flowers they feed on are in blossom, or in the case of the cuckoo, whose host birds start breeding earlier than the cuckoo’s return from its winter quarters. Furthermore, species from warmer regions, including those with invasive potential, can immigrate and change the relationship structure between the species.

Can nature provide us with solutions to address some of these impacts?

Nature has a great potential to counteract the impacts of climate change. And there are plentiful ‘nature-based solutions’ that not only support climate adaptation but also provide multiple synergies. Floodplain restoration projects, for example, effectively decrease water levels in rivers in extreme flood events and moreover contribute to nutrient retention.

Globally, nature-based solutions are already an important component to address climate change impacts. 

The restoration of salt marshes helps to protect coasts in temperate zones, while in tropical coastal regions flooding impacts can be massively reduced through the restoration of mangroves. Similarly, the rewetting of peatlands can lessen drought effects. If such nature-based solutions are applied thoughtfully, they can combine significant socio-economic benefits with a net gain for nature and biodiversity.

Globally, nature-based solutions are already an important component to address climate change impacts. We have knowledge, data and tools on hand for their implementation.

What is needed to boost natures resilience to climate change?

To enhance nature’s resilience to climate change, a coherent and well-connected network of protected areas is needed. The European Natura 2000 network of protected areas is an important backbone for the conservation of species and habitats.

These protected areas must be made ‘fit for climate change’, so that they can continue to fulfil their function. This means that existing pressures, for example due to intensive land use, such as high nutrient and pesticide inputs and disturbances of the water balance, must be reduced both inside and outside protected areas. However, the resilience of protected areas must also be enhanced through additional preventive measures, such as improved water management within the area and at landscape level.

In order to provide alternative habitats with suitable (micro)climatic conditions for sensitive species and to enable these species to reach these habitats, protected areas need to be enlarged to include a wider range of altitudes and exposures, and their connectivity needs to be improved. Besides, protected areas must be subject to adaptive management in order to be able to adjust protection goals to match the timing of climate change-induced changes.

It is equally important to consider land use as a whole. Forestry and agriculture have to adjust their management concepts to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. For example, current silvicultural management concepts, control instruments and planning approaches need to be revised so that they can better meet the challenges of climate change. More emphasis has to be put on enhancing the self-organising capacity of ecosystems, for example by preventing the introduction of invasive alien species, using native tree species or applying close-to-nature management concepts.

urbangarden
Last but not least, there is need for a stronger focus on urban nature, for example by building up networks of blue-green infrastructure to adapt to a changing climate.

© Máté Ladjánszki, REDISCOVER Nature /EEA

 

Based on your experience, what kind of challenges do you see?

Although climate protection currently is gaining political importance, we must not forget that climate mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity conservation issues must not be set against each other.

The energy transition in Germany is a good example of the opportunities but also the challenges of simultaneously reducing energy demand, developing renewable energy sources and considering nature conservation aspects. We need to exploit the synergies that arise from combined actions against climate change and biodiversity loss.

For example, the protection and sustainable management of forests and grassland offers both: ecosystem services such as carbon storage and biomass for material and energetic production. If we focus unilaterally on short-term climate mitigation measures, such as maximising biomass output for fossil energy substitution, we may jeopardise the biodiversity of our forests and thereby probably reduce their capability to adapt to climate change.

Nature conservation and sustainable management strategies need to better take into account the dynamics and unpredictability of climate change and the complex responses of ecological systems to such changes. This means that nature conservation needs to move away from its traditional focus on the preservation and protection of rigid objects and must increasingly allow dynamic processes and promote the resilience of ecosystems. In the case of forestry, this entails moving away from the traditional, anticipatory management paradigm towards a more process-oriented gradual and adaptive nature paradigm.

Are there initiatives that have succeeded in boosting natures resilience?

Various floodplain restoration projects have been very successful in terms of strengthening the resilience of ecosystems to the consequences of climate change, such as the large-scale nature conservation project ‘Mittlere Elbe’ and the floodplain restoration project on the Elbe in the area ‘Hohe Garbe’. Large floodplain areas were reconnected to the Elbe through a dyke relocation or a dyke slit, and today they are once again subject to a near-natural flooding regime.

Not only have these measures increased the flooding area and thus the retention area of the Elbe, which leads to a lowering of the water head during flood events, but these habitats have also become more resilient to droughts and dry periods.

 

Beate Jessel_04_c_Ursula Euler_Signals_ratio.jpg

Dr Beate Jessel
President of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation

 

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