There are a lot of reasons why I keep stressing the need for ecosystem management as the core of our climate action. We have, throughout our history, been utterly dependent on the natural world, even as we have been destroying it in the name of endless “growth”. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines that keep us alive, the materials we use to shelter ourselves from the elements – all of it ties back to so-called “nature”, because we are a part of it.
That means that as we work to end greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the changes we’ve already caused, we must also change how we do business in other areas. Ending our direct contribution to warming will mean little if we increase other forms of pollution as we do it. It’s not as simple as swapping out what kind of fuel powers our society, and if we pretend that the climate is our only existential environmental threat, then we will continue driving ourselves toward extinction through other means.
A holistic approach is going to mean a lot of things, but when it comes down to it, none of that is possible without continual access to fresh water. That may seem obvious, but it’s cause for real concern, as this report made for COP27 discusses:
The report titled: “The essential drop to reach Net-Zero: Unpacking Freshwater’s Role in Climate Change Mitigation,” released November 9 2022 at COP27 in harm El-Sheikh, is the first-ever summary of current research on the role of water in climate mitigation. A key message is the need to better understand global water shortages and scarcity in order to plan climate targets that do not backfire in future. If not planned carefully, negative impacts of climate action on freshwater resources might threaten water security and even increase future adaptation and mitigation burdens.
“Most of the measures needed to reach net-zero carbon targets can have a big impact on already dwindling freshwater resources around the world,” said Dr Lan Wang Erlandsson from Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. “With better planning, such risks can be reduced or avoided.”
The report describes why, where, and how freshwater should be integrated into climate change mitigation plans to avoid unexpected consequences and costly policy mistakes. Even efforts usually associated with positive climate action – such as forest restoration or bioenergy – can have negative impacts if water supplies are not considered.
Done right, however, water-related and nature-based solutions can instead address both the climate crisis and other challenges, said Dr Malin Lundberg Ingemarsson from Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
“We have identified water risks, but also win-win solutions that are currently not used to their full potential. One example is restoration of forests and wetlands which bring social, ecological, and climate benefits all at once. Another example is that better wastewater treatment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from untreated wastewater, while improving surface water and groundwater quality, and even provide renewable energy through biogas.”
That was when I decided I actually wanted to write about this a bit. “Nature-based solutions” are exactly what we need. As dangerous as heat waves and storms may be, one of the biggest dangers to our species is the breakdown of ecosystem services, of which most people seem to be largely unaware. I couldn’t say the exact numbers, but for all we must spend trillions on ending fossil fuel use, I think we should also spend trillions on ecosystem restoration and support. Even if we weren’t depleting both ground and surface water, and even if we weren’t poisoning what remains with reckless abandon, the melting of mountain glaciers around the world means that before long, billions could lose their primary water source. We need to be actively working to build up ecosystems, because they aren’t just affected by the weather, they affect the weather. Deforestation means less rainfall. That’s going to vary from ecosystem to ecosystem, but it’s not hard to understand.
Plants don’t just absorb rainwater, they also transfer it from the ground to the air. Trees in particular act as giant vaporizers, humidifying the air around their crowns. That, in turn, helps create rain downwind, or even sometimes right over the same forest. That movement of water, as I’ve discussed before, also moves heat around, which can help mitigate extreme heat, which affects everyone’s need for water. My insistence on viewing ourselves as a part of nature isn’t some spiritual feeling of connection, it’s a simple fact, supported by overwhelming evidence.
The report highlights five key messages on the interlinkage between water and mitigation:
• Climate mitigation measures depend on freshwater resources. Climate mitigation planning and action need to account for current and future freshwater availability.
• Freshwater impacts – both positive and negative – need to be evaluated and included in climate mitigation planning and action.
• Water and sanitation management can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More efficient drinking water and sanitation services save precious freshwater resources and reduce emissions.
• Nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change can deliver multiple benefits for people and the environment. Measures safeguarding freshwater resources, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring resilient livelihoods are crucial.
• Joint water and climate governance need to be coordinated and strengthened. Mainstreaming freshwater in all climate mitigation planning and action requires polycentric and inclusive governance.
“Climate change mitigation efforts will not succeed if failing to consider water needs,” said Marianne Kjellén, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “Water must be part of powerful solutions for enhancing ecosystem resilience, preserving biodiversity and regenerative food and energy production systems. In short, water security needs to be factored in to climate action,” she adds.
There’s a part of me that simply cannot believe that that last thought needs to be spelled out. How could anybody possibly think that we could respond to the threat of climate change without factoring in water? Hasn’t everyone been talking about “the coming water wars” for years? But, of course, action on that end of things has been woefully inadequate, just as it has been in every other area. Not only that, but the system we’re trying to change uses war not just to control people, but also to generate profit. Those of us still connected to our humanity hear “water wars” and think of the horrors of war, and perhaps the horrors of water scarcity. The rich and powerful, particularly in the United States, think of all the money they’ll make by converting raw resources into dead bodies, ravaged landscapes, and fat paychecks. There’s also a rather large portion of the population that is ideologically committed to the belief that a magical being put this entire cosmos here for “us” (which means the rich and powerful) to do with as we see fit. So yeah – it needs to be spelled out. For a lot of people, I’m afraid we’ll have to change the world around them, and hope their minds change afterwards, but in the meantime, it’s good to figure out what we should be doing about the water problem.
While I hope to go through the report more thoroughly, and write about its contents, I’ve had such intentions in the past. I’m approaching a year of daily posting (not counting the time I took off for Raksha’s death), which is a strange new experience for me, so hopefully I’ll actually be able to follow through this time. Still, maintaining work on my current novel is a more important right now, so in the meantime, here’s a link to the report, all nicely laid out by section. If you want me make this project (or any other) more of a priority, I’ll take that into consideration once you sign up at patreon.com/oceanoxia and send me a message about it.
It is a simple fact that on this planet, water is life. It’s also a fact that when we have tried to, we’ve been able to clean up polluted bodies of water, restore ecosystems, and bring species back from the brink of extinction. We do have the resources and understanding to make the world better, all we lack is a political an economic system that values doing so.
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