Protecting the Parks @ COP 21

By Nikita Lopoukhine


The Paris COP21 has attracted thousands of experts and politicians on the matter of climate change. Canada has stepped into the middle of the fray, arguing limits to emissions and the need for concrete action.

Canada`s delegation with Justin Trudeau at the helm, Provincial premiers and the newly minted Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, was well received to the point that Elizabeth May was filmed getting emotional over the welcome reception given Canada. This reception is in contrast to the pariah and obstructionist approach of the former government at previous COPs.
That was the beginning of the meeting in Paris; now the bigger issues are in play. Debates are focused on whether we can live with a two degree rise in temperature of to try and shoot for a 1.5 centigrade increase as supported by Minister Mckenna. Others are debating the need for a binding protocol. If so, the mechanisms to police such a protocol and indeed defining associated penalties are also leading to late night discussions.

As with all International Conventions, fundamental issues of funding debates are raging focused on who gets what and how much are critical to success. Debates are between developing countries and developed countries. Pledges will be made and stringent mechanisms under the Global Environmental Facility will be imposed on any fund transfers.

At the COP as mostly elsewhere, hardly anyone is arguing against the need for the immediate curtailing of global emissions. Everyone agrees that clean energy as an alternative to fossil fuels is now a given along with investments in green infrastructure. True, there are a number of proponents for very expensive high tech carbon absorbing schemes. Multibillion-dollar technological approaches to storing carbon, from pumping it into depleted oil wells to building massive carbon absorption systems, bordering on science fiction are being proposed.

At the same time — and inexplicably — a more convenient and less expensive method is being overlooked.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and other forms of land use change. Live vegetation absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen. Planting trees offsets carbon emissions. Cutting trees eliminates absorption of carbon. Indeed, forests can hold 20 to 100 times more carbon dioxide than agricultural systems could on the same amount of land. Similarly, mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes store carbon both in the plants and in the sediment immediately beneath them.

When soils are turned over by plows, coastal marshes are drained, or peat lands burned, the carbon is exposed to oxygen with which it forms CO2 and finds its way into the atmosphere. There it persists for a long time, trapping heat as a greenhouse gas. Adding insult to injury, these land-use conversions also destroy natural carbon sinks. For example, most carbon accumulated in coastal marshlands does not find its way into the atmosphere. Carbon is buried in the sediment at rates up to 50 times higher than those observed on land, and these rates can be maintained for centuries or more. The Bay of Fundy marshlands in Canada could be absorbing a significant per cent of Canada’s CO2 reduction target had they had not been converted.

Put simply, if we stop converting intact ecosystems, we would not only arrest 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but we’d continue to have natural carbon sinks — all without investing in technological fixes.

Halting forest degradation and forest restoration are on the agenda in Paris. There is concerted effort to recognize “ecosystem-based adaptation” or a “natural solution” approach which is the use of natural systems as a way to buffer the worst impacts of climate change. Arguments in favor of a “natural solution” must not stop with curbing further carbon emissions and protecting carbon sinks. Intact ecosystems also yield benefits for people and other species. These are beneficial for physical and mental health. They provide clean water, clean air, pollinators and food, especially sea food. Intact ecosystems also serve as insurance against floods, landslides and even tsunamis. The actual and replacement worth of such services would be in the billions of dollars

The COP text being negotiated these days recognizes the value of ecosystem resilience but not of protected areas which is by far the least expensive of all the solutions. National parks and other forms of protected areas around the world have a particular role in a “natural solution.” They are arguably the most effective management strategy known to avoid conversion to other land uses.

Nearly 14 percent of the world’s land surface, containing more than 15 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon stock, is already under protection, along with significant areas of the sea. In many parts of the world, protected areas contain the remaining vestiges of intact ecosystems. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Strategic Plan calls for increased protection of 17% terrestrially and 10% marine by 2020. The combination of storing unreleased carbon and protecting ecosystems should make protected areas a natural component of any strategy discussed in Paris. Taking in these inherent values of protected areas in both adaptation and mitigation of climate change, the global targets provide an opportunity to significantly contribute to addressing Climate Change challenges.

The Paris conference should recognize the role of protected areas as tools for permanent carbon storage and call on countries to implement robust protected-area systems as a core component of national strategies to achieve land and marine-based emissions reductions. Specifically and borrowing from the 19 South American Park Agencies (Redparques) declaration on the subject the following is recommended for the Paris UNFCCC:

– Include the contributions of protected areas in submissions to the UNFCCC.
– Tap Green Climate Fund and other multilateral and bilateral cooperation efforts in support of creation and management of protected areas.
– Encourage integration of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans with National Adaptation Plans.
– Support action based on protected areas for implementation of National Contributions.

Then, the following is recommended at the national level:

– In line with the CBD 2020 protected areas targets, assure that the design and the management of protected areas also include connectivity, representativity and redundancy.
– Assure the inclusion of protected areas in national climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.
– Promote research to monitor, verify and report the contribution of protected areas to domestic climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and international commitments.
– Raise awareness among people and decision-makers on the role of protected areas for mitigation, adaptation, resilience and sustainable development.
– Integrate existing protected areas through landscape approaches.
– Expand, reshape, increase level of protection and/or create new protected areas to cover ecosystems that are key for facing climate change.

Nikita Lopoukhine retired in 2005 as Parks Canada's Director General of the National Parks Directorate and is Emeritus Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Subscribe to the Pearson Centre newsletter.

Insightful commentary & debate, delivered to your inbox. Sign up below.