Na­ture’s an­swer to cli­mate risk

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Nearly half the world’s pop­u­la­tion – some 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple – lives near coasts. As cli­mate change ex­ac­er­bates the ef­fects of storms, flood­ing, and ero­sion, the lives and liveli­hoods of hun­dreds of mil­lions of those peo­ple will be at risk. In fact, the lat­est edi­tion of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s World Risk As­sess­ment Re­port names fail­ure to adapt to the ef­fects of cli­mate change as the sin­gle great­est risk, in terms of im­pact, to so­ci­eties and economies around the world.

Be­yond en­dan­ger­ing lives, more fre­quent and stronger storms could cost many bil­lions of dol­lars, ow­ing to in­fras­truc­ture dam­age and lost rev­enues from farm­ing, fish­eries, and tourism. And, as the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view re­cently noted, the pro­jected cost rises with each new study. Yet the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity cur­rently spends on risk mit­i­ga­tion less than one-fifth of what it spends on nat­u­ral-dis­as­ter re­sponse.

When it comes to cli­mate risk, an ounce of pre­ven­tion is worth a pound of cure. As Re­becca Scheurer, Di­rec­tor of the Red Cross Global Dis­as­ter Pre­pared­ness Cen­tre, put it, “We spend mil­lions of dol­lars on the re­sponse side, and were we to in­vest more of those re­sources on the front end we’d save more peo­ple. It’s as sim­ple as that.”

With the hu­man and the fi­nan­cial costs of cli­mate change at­tract­ing more at­ten­tion than ever, now is the time to shift re­sources to­ward risk re­duc­tion. Do­ing so will re­quire na­tional gov­ern­ments, in­dus­try, aid or­gan­i­sa­tions, and other NGOs to make the most of their in­vest­ments. And some of the most ef­fec­tive and cost-ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions are al­ready avail­able in na­ture.

Coastal and marine ecosys­tems have con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial to mit­i­gate the ef­fects of storms and other risks, es­pe­cially when com­bined with tra­di­tional built in­fras­truc­ture. A 100-me­ter belt of man­groves, for ex­am­ple, can reduce wave height by up to 66% and lower peak wa­ter lev­els dur­ing floods. A healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97%, less­en­ing the im­pact of storms and pre­vent­ing ero­sion. These and other coastal ecosys­tems are the first line of de­fense for many cities around the world, from Mi­ami to Manila.

Un­til re­cently, such na­ture-based so­lu­tions were too of­ten over­looked. But lead­ers in­creas­ingly recog­nise their im­por­tance, and are be­gin­ning to take ac­tion, in­clud­ing on the in­ter­na­tional level. The Paris cli­mate agree­ment, reached last De­cem­ber and signed last month, not only es­tab­lished a con­sen­sus on the im­por­tance of ad­dress­ing cli­mate change, but also ex­plic­itly af­firmed that ecosys­tems play a role in cap­tur­ing green­house gases and help­ing com­mu­ni­ties adapt to the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

At the na­tional level, some of the most atrisk is­land coun­tries are tak­ing im­por­tant steps. For ex­am­ple, last year, the Sey­chelles an­nounced a first-of-its-kind “debt for na­ture” swap with its Paris Club cred­i­tors and The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy. The swap will al­low the coun­try to re­di­rect $21.6 mil­lion of its debt to­ward in­vest­ment in a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to ocean con­ser­va­tion that will bol­ster its re­silience to cli­mate change.

Pri­vate-sec­tor lead­ers, too, are start­ing to look to­ward nat­u­ral tools. Engi­neer­ing firms like CH2M are work­ing with coastal com­mu­ni­ties in the Gulf of Mex­ico and be­yond to find hy­brid so­lu­tions that com­bine tra­di­tional and na­ture-based ap­proaches.

Even the in­surance in­dus­try – com­pris­ing what may be the most risk-averse com­pa­nies in the world – sees the po­ten­tial in nat­u­ral so­lu­tions. Over the last decade, in­sur­ers have paid out some $300 bil­lion for cli­matere­lated dam­age, of­ten to re­build the same vul­ner­a­ble struc­tures. It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that the rein­surer Swiss Re has con­ducted stud­ies on mit­i­gat­ing the costly risks of hur­ri­canes to coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to one Swiss Re study, Bar­ba­dos loses the equiv­a­lent of 4% of its GDP ev­ery year to hur­ri­cane-re­lated costs. But ev­ery dol­lar spent to pro­tect man­groves and coral reefs saved $20 in fu­ture hur­ri­cane losses. Given such find­ings, it is no longer in­con­ceiv­able that in­surance com­pa­nies might one day write cov­er­age for wet­lands and other nat­u­ral in­fras­truc­ture that of­fers pro­tec­tion for coastal com­mu­ni­ties and economies.

Na­ture can also help to pro­tect liveli­hoods. A Red Cross-led man­grove restora­tion project in Viet­nam not only re­duced dam­age to dykes and other built in­fras­truc­ture, but also re­sulted in higher aqua­cul­ture yields and thus more in­come for the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. A man­grove and coral restora­tion project in Gre­nada – a joint ef­fort of the Red Cross, the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, and the fish­ers of Gre­nada’s Grenville com­mu­nity – has also shown great po­ten­tial to in­crease re­silience. Just 30 me­ters of reef and coral have been shown to in­crease sub­stan­tially the pop­u­la­tion of lob­ster, conch, oc­to­pus, and urchins.

Cli­mate and dis­as­ter re­silience is a chal­lenge that spans across sec­tors. So too must our so­lu­tions. Such col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts are vi­tal to the de­vel­op­ment and im­ple­men­ta­tion of more ef­fec­tive pre­ven­tive strate­gies. The World Bank, the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, and part­ner re­searchers (in­clud­ing ecol­o­gists, econ­o­mists, and en­gi­neers) have re­cently pub­lished a re­port of­fer­ing guide­lines for such co­op­er­a­tion. Specif­i­cally, the re­port rec­om­mends cal­cu­lat­ing the value of coastal ecosys­tems in terms of pro­tected cap­i­tal and in­fras­truc­ture, based on ap­proaches com­monly used by the in­surance and engi­neer­ing in­dus­tries.

In the face of ris­ing cli­mate and dis­as­ter risk, in­vest­ments in na­ture-based so­lu­tions can pro­tect lives and safe­guard pros­per­ity in a cost-ef­fec­tive man­ner – all while pre­serv­ing im­per­iled nat­u­ral ecosys­tems around the world. It is time for gov­ern­ments, busi­ness, and NGOs alike to rec­og­nize that when it comes to fight­ing the ef­fects of cli­mate change and pro­tect­ing coastal com­mu­ni­ties, pre­serv­ing and restor­ing na­ture may be the smartest in­vest­ment we can make.

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