Time to turn to nature for climate action

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LAGUNA, Nov. 17 — Four consecutive typhoons pummeled the Philippines in just a couple of weeks, leaving swathes of destruction in their wake. The most recent one, with the local name “Ulysses” (international name: Vamco) submerged parts of Luzon, giving residents in the capital a painful reminder of the great flood that happened 10 years ago. These kinds of calamities, as terrifying and as destructive, are happening in some parts of the ASEAN region, too. Since October, five typhoons have hit the Mekong Region, resulting in catastrophic floods in Central Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao PDR, leaving millions worth of properties destroyed and scores dead.

Our hearts deeply go out to the victims of these massive floods. Climate change impacts have been accelerating and are now severely felt. These emergencies go to show that Southeast Asia remains one of the vulnerable regions taking the brunt of climate change. It is among the most disaster-prone in the world, with 1,218 disasters occurring from 2012 to 2018, data from the ASEAN Secretariat show. These disasters cause an estimated damage of USD 15.9 billion annually, equivalent to three times the ASEAN’s collective annual gross domestic product.

While effective and decisive immediate response is crucial in these times, we invite everyone to look at the bigger picture.

The Sierra Madre mountain range, which runs from Cagayan province in the north to Quezon province in the south, is strategically located in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard, weakening strong weather disturbances that develop and originate from the Pacific Ocean, thus protecting a large part of the island of Luzon. This heterogeneous mountain range comprises a diversity of ecosystems from wetlands like mangroves and freshwater lakes, such as the Dunoy lakes, to unique pygmy forests and large dipterocarp forest areas. This combination of different ecosystems, if intact, will not just break strong winds but will also absorb large amounts of rainfall.

Thus, an integral part of our disaster risk reduction should be the restoration and conservation of existing forests.  Likewise, mangrove and wetlands ecosystems serve as buffers and support numerous flora and fauna species that in turn provide communities food and livelihood. Pristine marine and terrestrial areas serve as sinks that are crucial in preventing carbon levels from rising.

These nature-based solutions are also called the ‘no-regrets’ adaptation measures as we benefit from their positive impacts with or without the occurrence of disasters. Aside from cushioning us from the impacts of climate change, the protection of these ecosystems provide advantages that are key to our survival: providing clean water, ensuring food security, and regulating a host of diseases.

It is, however, unfortunate that our ecosystems continue to be under threat: in a span of three decades, from 1990 to 2020, the ASEAN had lost 376,181 square kilometers of forest area, according to the latest data of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; inland waters continue to be ASEAN’s most threatened habitats despite the waters it provide to irrigate agricultural areas in the Region; marine biodiversity health continues to be undermined by the overexploitation of coastal and marine resources. With climate change and loss of biodiversity, food security is further threatened as crop yields decline, and pest and disease infestations worsen.

Nevertheless, we must learn from these grim experiences and resolve to transform the way we treat our ecosystems and make them part of our solutions to recover and rehabilitate what has been affected by these recent events.  There remain diverse ecosystems found in abundance in the ASEAN region that require protection. The ASEAN Member States and the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, along with its dialogue partners, such as Swedebio, promote the Ecosystems-based Approach (EbA) and implement programs that support protected areas and their communities to boost the resilience of vital ecosystems.

The ASEAN region has high stakes in the global climate action, which, among others, includes the landmark post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Our attention is now on the development of this framework, which is expected to be finalised and adopted at the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity. Touted as the “Paris agreement for biodiversity,” this framework will put front-and-center the role of biodiversity and ecosystems in climate change.

Inasmuch as there is recognition of climate change as a driver of biodiversity loss, it must also be realised that conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity is right at the core of climate action.

As we continue to face the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change, business as usual should no longer be acceptable. We must work hand in hand if we want to make a difference for our future. Member states must work with other nations in crafting an ambitious yet attainable global framework that will serve the interest of the Region. Furthermore, a wise decision for the public and private sector is to increase investments in nature-based solutions.

The citizens of the ASEAN have demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of crises in the past. These, however, must be matched with science-based policies and programmes that embed biodiversity and nature-based solutions to short- and long-term climate action at all levels. (ACB)

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