Saving two birds with one stone: tackling biodiversity and climate together with Pete Smith
Many climate change mitigation proposals are land-use intensive. Are these proposals feasible without negatively impacting biodiversity? Can we develop solutions for both the climate and biodiversity crises?
There has been an historic lack of collaboration between climate and conservation efforts. To address this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) produced their first-ever joint report in June to determine solutions that benefit both biodiversity and climate change.
Dr. Pete Smith, a co-author of the IPBES/IPCC report and professor of Soils and Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, joined Climate Now to explain why biodiversity should not be forgotten in the climate fight.
Professor of Soils and Global Change
Professor of Soils and Global Change
Pete Smith is a Professor of Soils and Global Change at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland, UK) and Science Director of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise (ClimateXChange). His interests include climate change mitigation, soils, agriculture, food systems, ecosystem services and modelling. He is one of the authors of the IPCC/IPBES joint report on biodiversity and climate.
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
Katherine Gorman is a podcast host for Climate Now. She has worked for terrestrial public radio stations across the US, and is also co-host of the podcast “The Talking Machines”. She is excited to democratize the climate conversation and to learn and share knowledge from experts in the field.
Katherine Gorman (00:02):
You are listening to Climate Now. I’m Katherine Gorman.
James Lawler (00:05):
And I’m James Lawler. And today we’ll be discussing the IPBES and IPCC co-sponsored workshop on biodiversity and climate change. So the background here is in June of 2021, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES for short, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, held a workshop to discuss how we can both preserve biodiversity and pursue bold climate change strategies without compromising either initiative.
Katherine Gorman (00:37):
This was a four day virtual workshop and a first ever collaboration between the climate and biodiversity experts. And what came out of it was a 256 page report detailing all of their conclusions. We’ll have a link to that report in our show notes, but to get a more concise insight into this workshop and what happened, why it was needed, we’re speaking with Dr. Pete Smith, one of the lead authors of the report. Dr. Smith is also a professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen and science director of Scotland’s Climate Exchange. Dr. Smith, welcome to Climate Now.
Pete Smith (01:16):
Thanks very much. Nice to be here.
Katherine Gorman (01:17):
So we’d like to begin with the same question for all of our guests: how did you get where you are?
Pete Smith (01:22):
Sort of a very weird route. I started off as a zoologist, I was an undergraduate zoologist. I did my PhD in zoology, and then got a job working in science, in zoology, for a short time after that. And that’s where I picked up some computer modeling, but I then decided to switch those computer modeling skills and apply them in a different field. And that’s right when I go into biogeochemistry modeling, the global carbon cycle, and particularly looking at the role that land use and agriculture plays in greenhouse gas emissions and how we can reduce them.
Katherine Gorman (01:59):
That’s quite a transition from zoology to computer modeling. So, let’s focus on this workshop that you were a part of, what was the motivation behind it?
Pete Smith (02:10):
Yeah, I think the reason the workshop happened, we’ll start with that, is because IPCC covers some aspects of biodiversity, but it’s not the central focus, and the IPBES platform was designed to look at the growing problem of biodiversity loss, and whilst climate change is a main driver of that, biodiversity was the focus. So we got these two big intergovernmental panels going on in parallel. Each one referring, cross-referencing a bit to the other, these two inter-governmental panels have not come together before. So it was really important to get those talking to each other, because a lot of the solutions require that we treat the two problems, the climate emergency and the emergency of biodiversity, rapid diversity loss, together. And if we don’t tackle them together, we don’t tackle either one effectively. So I think it was really important for the two panels to start talking together.
James Lawler (03:12):
So to understand why this workshop between the IPCC and IPBES was needed, I’m curious, in what ways might these two efforts be adversarial? Are there examples of projects or policies that were helpful or can be helpful on the climate side, but are harmful on the biodiversity side or are there biodiversity programs that are great for biodiversity conservation, but not effective in terms of, you know, reducing emissions?
Pete Smith (03:36):
Yeah, sure. I think that’s a bit more one-sided, it’s not just an equal balance between the two. There are some clear mitigation options that you might take that address climate change that would be bad for biodiversity. So I’m thinking of, for example, very large skylight or a station to remove several gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, as a greenhouse gas removal technology, you’d need an area around about twice the size of India to get that sort of level of removal. When we look at it the other way round, there aren’t so many things that are good for biodiversity that are bad for climate. I think, generally speaking, biodiversity and interventions are good for climate, and the worst they get is neutral, like, like having a neutral effect on climate change. So you don’t tend to get interventions that are good for biodiversity and bad for the climate, but you do have interventions that are good for climate and can be bad for biodiversity.
James Lawler (04:38):
Could you expand a bit more about why planting a forest twice the size of India could be harmful for biodiversity?
Pete Smith (04:44):
Yeah. Because as the old song goes, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that matters. So, it’s not afforestation, per se, that’s the problem. I mean, look, you know, planting trees, people love trees, et cetera, is a nice win-win nature-based solution, you would think. And where it’s done appropriately, so if we’re using native species, we’re doing it either through natural generation, natural regeneration, or assisted regeneration on an area where trees grew, that’s generally very good for biodiversity, so that’s, that’s a clear way that afforestation or reforestation could be a nature-based solution. But if you look, on the other hand, you can also plant non-native species, which are grown in monocultures and cover large areas, which can be basically a biodiversity desert, you know, they block out all the light underneath, the local plant species and animal species aren’t used to living in them, so they don’t have, they don’t have a good habitat biodiversity.
Pete Smith (05:43):
Another good example is where you plant trees where that’s not the natural climate, climax vegetation. So there are large areas of Savannah in Africa and in South America, for example, and in central Asia, that could be planted up with trees, but they don’t naturally carry trees in their ecosystems. So we’d have to use native species, and that would generally again be very bad biodiversity. So we just have to find the right solutions it’s been frequently quoted it is the right tree in the right place, that’s what we have to do.
Katherine Gorman (06:21):
What would you say to someone who says that we should just prioritize pulling carbon out of the air and worry about biodiversity later? Cause I guess the logic is if we don’t solve the climate crisis before it causes irreversible damage, then biodiversity will be sort of the least of our problems.
Pete Smith (06:39):
It’s right what you say that if we don’t tackle climate change, we’re screwed and biodiversity will be screwed iff we don’t tackle climate change, we have to get that under control. So that has to be, you know, the thing that we’re aiming to do, but there are ways to address that, you know, as I’ve said, these nature-based solutions or ways to address it, which means that you don’t have to choose between climate change and biodiversity. We can co-deliver to climate change and mitigation, and do biodiversity at the same time. And in fact, those, those mitigation measures are better, more stable in the long term, so they may take up more carbon, and we know that if we destroy habitats and biodiversity, by the biodiversity that supports those habitats, actually the carbon sinks that we’re relying on, you know, the trees that were growing, will not be, will not be functional ecosystems, so we can reduce our sink capacity for sucking up carbon, if we don’t treat the biodiversity fairly and properly at the same time. It’s really not a matter of choosing between the two, it’s a matter of ensuring that the bio, the biodiversity is there because it’s functional, it’s providing vital functions to allow, that allow our ecosystems to absorb carbon. So we really have to do the two together. There’s not a way that we can prioritize one over the other. We have to tackle them both together. That’s why this is so important for IPBES and IPCC to come together to state this.
James Lawler (08:08):
So, the report that came out of this workshop, detailed some actionable items for policymakers and organizations to reduce the impact of climate change and support biodiversity. Could you walk us through several of these strategies, and explain how they work?
Pete Smith (08:23):
Yeah. Okay. So some of them are to do with, well, they all center around, what I called nature-based solutions, I’ve mentioned that a few times before, but those are solutions which tackle climate change, and provide mitigation and adaptation benefits, but also provide measurable benefits to, to biodiversity and wellbeing so they can fit into a number of categories. So the first one is protect, and that involves protecting high carbon and high biodiversity value ecosystems. So obvious examples are tropical rainforests, which are incredibly biodiverse and also hold up a huge amount of carbon. So protecting those areas is really important. And there is a suggestion that we need to increase the amount of protected areas, maybe to 30% of the global land surface so that we…
You would agree with that?
Yeah, I do. Yeah. I think it should possibly be even higher. But we do, you know, there is land competition, there’s competition for land.
Pete Smith (09:27):
So where we can find multifunctional land use is where we can deliver more than one thing. For example, through agroecology, agroforestry, we can still produce food as well as timber, as well as protect biodiversity, as well as create a carbon sink, so those multifunctional land uses are useful. So there’s that protect, protect is one of the things, we know that we’ve got a lot of ecosystems that are pristine, they’d been damaged or degraded in some way. And that can be, you know, through desertification, it can be through overuse of forestry, it can be through peatlands being drained. For those high, high biodiversity in high carbon ecosystems, we should put our efforts into restoring them. So there’s protect, on one hand, there’s restore the pristine ecosystems to get them back to their former glory, to support biodiversity and to reverse biodiversity loss, and to store carbon.
Pete Smith (10:25):
And the third is to manage ecosystems better because we were going to need to, we need to produce food, obviously, to feed everybody on the planet. And we also need to produce timber, maybe more timber. Productive timberland is needed because we want to replace the steel and concrete that’s used in construction which are very, very carbon intense. So if we’re going to do that, we, we have to have productive forestry or productive, productive agriculture. So we, we’re still gonna use that land for things other than biodiversity. But the trick there is to manage the land in a way that is conducive to biodiversity, that supports biodiversity, as well as climate mitigation. So it is not just a matter of just putting a fence around everything and saying, nobody goes there. We need to use all the land and to treat it better, treat it more constructively like with regenerative, regenerative agriculture, for example, and encourage ecological farming to use that land productively.
Pete Smith (11:26):
The last category is to create, create novel ecosystems. For example, in urban environments, we could be creating a sort of like human-influenced ecosystems. We can be smart in the way that we do that.
Meaning sort of parks, or?
Yeah, using green space within cities or even, even on buildings, you know, so we can use, um, we can use plants on the outside of buildings to cool buildings, and we can use that sort of green infrastructure to do a lot of the stuff that we’re using energy for in the first place. So there are some innovative solutions in the, in the, in our cities and urban areas that we could also use, which would constitute nature-based solutions.
Katherine Gorman (12:05):
So are there any targeted strategies or policies that are suggested in the report?
Pete Smith (12:09):
Yes. There were some other things in there, you know, which are, you know, we can document some things that are ongoing, which are bad for biodiversity and bad for climate. So I’m thinking of overfishing, for example, deep-sea bed trolling, which is bad for biodiversity and bad for carbon sequestration, cause it rips out the kelp beds and your sea grasses and such like, so there are some things that we need to just stop doing or to do them in a much more environmentally friendly way. So there are some things out there. And another one, a good example is our overconsumption in many countries, in many industrialized countries and economies in transition, our overconsumption of meat and dairy, which has a much larger biodiversity footprint in terms of the land that’s used for animal agriculture compared to plant-based diets. So shifting diet and waste reduction as well, waste, food waste reduction would go a long way because it would take the pressure off the land a bit. It would create more space in which we can do nature-based solutions.
Katherine Gorman (13:19):
And so for next steps, how do you hope these recommendations are implemented?
Pete Smith (13:24):
Well, my hope is at COP26, the UK government, one of the big pushes from the UK government is to really push forward on nature-based solutions. So my hope is at COP26 there will be an outcome that recognizes the importance of nature in, not just for its own sake, but for the sake of protecting the climate and helping to provide climate mitigation, that we can use nature to help us in addressing these issues. So I’m hoping that the global leaders that will gather at COP26 later this year in Glasgow will be persuaded to move to the woods on the protect, restore, create, manage, manage agenda to really push nature-based solutions forward. So, you know, because they address climate change and also a whole bunch of other environmental challenges.
James Lawler (14:19):
Turning to a sort of a slightly tangential topic for just a moment, we at Climate Now have another podcast episode, which discusses the issue with carbon offsets and the difficulty with determining additionality, particularly when it comes to projects intended to boost carbon sequestration with forests. For example, as someone who is highly knowledgeable in both the areas of biodiversity and climate change mitigation, what’s your take on the effectiveness of these various offset projects and their ability to be truly additional?
Pete Smith (14:51):
There are examples where, that you can think of, you know, if you’ve got an area that has been largely deforested, and you can see deforestation patterns on the satellite images year on year on year on year. And you could say, if we don’t protect this area of forest, it will go the same way as all the others. So there, you would have a clear statement of additionality because you’ve got an evidence base to say it’s probably going to disappear because of all the economic activity in the area and then the money to pay for the restoration. When you know that a peatland, when it has been drained, is continually emitting, temperate peatlands can be emitting over 30 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. So you’ve got an ongoing loss of carbon from the drained peatlands. So the peatland project might say, what we’re going to do is kind of restore the peatlands.
Pete Smith (15:42):
We’re going to raise the water table by blocking up all the drainage channels. And there you’ve got a clear counterfactual, because if you didn’t drop, you didn’t go and block the drains, then that ongoing emission would continue until all the peat disappeared. But in some cases, you can clearly state the counterfactual and it’s robust, and people will, you know, just about any expert would say, yeah, that’s probably going to happen. It’s more of an issue where you’re looking for the counterfactual, particularly for protecting forest. The issue first came up under the REDD program that reduced deforestation and degradation program, and that was looking at protecting areas. It’s really important for the climate that we do that because we don’t want to lose the carbon in those ecosystems, but it’s just the way that it’s being used in a disingenuous way to claim carbon credits to, to attract financing in. I don’t have any issue with finance being attractive to conservation, but I do have an issue with claiming that you’ve had a climate benefit when in fact there’s been no net time of benefit. I think we have to be honest about that.
Katherine Gorman (16:50):
So following this idea of a carbon offset market, should we be thinking about putting a price on biodiversity to get people to realize the value of what we’re either conserving or destroying?
Pete Smith (17:04):
There’s actually a field of environmental economics, which looks at natural capital and natural capital is a way of valuing those public goods. You know, the private goods or the things like, you know, the timber that you produce from the land or the, the the crops that you grow that you can sell. But the land also provides a number of public goods, for example, by purifying water, by providing clean air, by providing carbon sequestration, and there are ways to put a value on that. So the valuing of natural capital is a whole area of you know, environmental economics that is growing. And there’s an increasing recognition that we, that we need to value public goods as, as much as we do private goods. And indeed as the UK or, you know, I’m, I’m from Scotland in the UK, and the UK is transitioning to a folder of subsidies since we left the EU, the European Union. We’re no longer part of the common agricultural policy, which means that the UK has a chance to redesign its subsidy system for agriculture. And there’s move now towards rather than subsidizing farmers to produce food, we’re gonna subsidize them to, to provide public goods, so public money for public goods. And I think that’s overall a good idea.
James Lawler (18:32):
So I have a quote from the report that I’m going to read, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on, it’s from Professor Hans Otto’s part in the introduction, and he was the co-chair of the scientific steering committee for the IPBES and IPCC workshop. And he wrote, “solving some of the strong and apparently unavoidable trade-offs between climate and biodiversity will entail a profound collective shift of the individual and shared values concerning nature, such as moving away from the conception of economic progress based solely on GDP growth.” What do you make of that statement? And do you think that’s remotely achievable?
Pete Smith (19:07):
Yeah, well, as a, as an individual citizen, rather than as a scientist I think that there is some merit in that you know, there are things like we, we measure the success of the country and the government and policies by looking at their effects on GDP, how much we’re increasing GDP year on year, we measure economic growth in terms of GDP every year. But there’s an increasing realization that, you know, money doesn’t make you happy. You know, GDP is not necessarily a very good indicator of human well-being or human happiness. So there are other indices that are being used now, particularly in the Scandinavian countries. And they’re just being looked at here in Scotland, that look at human wellbeing as an index of how well we’re performing. So I think we, you know, we can’t just abandon economic wellbeing because it’s only in our relatively well-off countries that we can afford to think about, you know, human wellbeing, decoupled from economics. But when you’ve reached a certain level of economic development, you can start thinking is that all there is? Is that the only way we’re going to measure how well we’re doing? Ultimately, you know, we, we want to protect the planet. We want to protect where we live. We want to keep it good for our kids and our grandchildren. And we want to be happy. You know, we want to have a happy life, so why not use some indices that measure human happiness and wellbeing.
James Lawler (20:40):
Very interesting. Dr. Smith, thank you so much for talking through all of this with us. It was a great chat.
Yeah, it was fun for me too, thanks.
Katherine Gorman (20:53):
That is it for this episode of the podcast, you can check out our other interviews, watch our videos and sign up for our newsletter at climatenow.com. And if you want to get in touch, email us email@example.com or tweet at us @weareclimatenow. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.