Professor Nathalie Seddon explained to more than 100 loyal donors attending Wadham’s Circles Event ‘Nature Based Solutions to Global Challenges’ at The Conduit in London, how climate change is creating immense poverty and inequality for communities around the world, as their homes are destroyed by increasingly volatile weather patterns and crops become harder to grow. It is also threatening natural habitats and wildlife.
“But rather than simply being a vulnerability to climate change, nature is our biggest ally,” she said. “Healthy functioning vibrant habitats and ecosystems produce so many goods and services on which human wellbeing depends. In other words, nature is our life support system.”
Examples include green spaces in cities to keep us cool and control flood waters; natural grasslands and woodlands that help to hold on to soil, combating erosion and landslides; restoring coastlines with natural salt marshes, kelp forests, mangroves and coral reefs to protect communities and infrastructure from storm surges and salt water intrusion into fresh water sources.
Not only do these activities protect us from climate change impacts, but they store carbon. Nathalie explained that 28% of all human greenhouse gas emissions over the past 10 years have come from changes in land use, half of which is from deforestation in tropical regions. Meanwhile, over the same period, 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions have been absorbed by our lands. Nathalie stressed the importance of looking after these carbon sinks to slow climate change.
Nathalie’s research team, the Nature-based Solutions Initiative, works with regional teams in Africa, Asia and South America to help support action on the ground guided by the best available evidence. In Ethiopia, 2,800 hectares of degraded agricultural land has been restored to natural woodlands in a farmer-led initiative. Soil erosion, leading to flash floods, had become a serious problem for the area. Regeneration of the land to woodland will draw down around 870,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over next thirty years, and is preventing soil erosion and flooding and supporting higher crop yields in adjacent areas. The Ethiopian government, in recognising the success of this initiative, has ordered a further 15 million hectares of similar land to be conserved in the same way.
Dr Dustin Garrick, Associate Professor at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and School of Geography and the Environment discussed the critical need for collaboration and partnerships of science, policy and enterprise to understand and respond to in order to address the global challenge of water security challenges.
He highlighted the set of challenges posed by land use, water use and climate change impacts across the water cycle. Urbanisation and agricultural practices are accelerating these pressures, requiring nature-based need to match nature-based solutions that are well-matched to specific different types of water challenges. “Realising the potential of nature based solutions requires that we unlock advances in the science and policy of measurement, valuation and governance,” he said.
He cited a World Economic Forum Report highlighting how water crises are one of the top global risks to society, interwoven and increasingly positioned as a systemic risk that is linked with a range of connected challenges including food security and forced migration. Access to water (the ability to deliver clean, safe drinking water), water scarcity (imbalance between supply and demand), flooding and flood risk, pollution and ecological degradation all need to be addressed amidst an increase in global demand for water he said. Business-as-usual practices of infrastructure and governance, such as importation of water supplies to cities from distant rural hinterlands, can be at least partially offset by well-designed nature-based solutions that harness local water sources and manage the connection between watershed health and human well-being.
Addressing nature based solutions for health, Dr Sarah Whitmee told the audience that improvements to our lives over the last seventy years – lower rates of mortality and longer life expectancy, declining rates of under nourishment – have been supported by the natural systems of the earth. But we are now seeing the degradation of these systems and we can’t assume that our children and grandchildren will have the same life expectancy. Where protected areas are in place, studies show that microbial activity removes pollutants from streams and rivers – the higher the biodiversity richness, the better it is at removing pollutants from untreated water sources.
In 2011 a government White Paper stated that this would be the “first generation to leave the natural environment in better state than it inherited” said Professor Colin Mayer. The UK was the first country to establish a natural capital committee, create a 25-year environment plan and introduce an environment bill to support the plan. “But the record to date is not good… We don’t value nature in its own right. What is required is something that recognises nature’s great intrinsic value.” Colin called for greater investment in enhancing natural assets; to restore natural assets based on condition; to invest to create particular services – air quality, carbon sequestration, flood defences; and for coordinated governance by private and public sector bodies.
Following lively discussion, the Warden Ken Macdonald QC, expressed his sincere thanks to Development Council member and event host, Heather Stevens CBE (Experimental Psychology, 1976). He also thanked speakers and donors for their continuing support for Wadham College.
The annual Circles’ Event provides an opportunity for the College to thank regular and significant donors to Wadham and the Warden emphasised how vital alumni donations are for the College; allowing Wadham to widen participation to the most talented students and offer support to our world-leading scholars.