Posted in | News | Climate Change | Ecology

To Succeed at Climate Adaptation, We Must Prioritize Ecological Integrity

A new perspective paper emphasizes the importance of considering ecological integrity in climate adaptation practice and offers recommendations for doing so. 

Image Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

As the impacts of climate change continue at an accelerating pace and scale globally, national climate commitments and finance have shifted focus from mitigation-only strategies to ones that incorporate both climate mitigation and adaptation. Funding for climate adaptation has also increased globally, from $9 billion per year in 2015-2016 to $20 billion in 2019. 

Ecological integrity is defined as the degree to which an ecosystem’s current structure, composition, and function reflect a reference state defined by the absence of visible human influence. In general, areas of high integrity are less modified and degraded. Higher integrity ecosystems contribute to reduced risk of natural hazards, improved protection of freshwater resources, persistence of biodiversity even as climate changes, and greater benefits to human health. For these reasons, integrity can be used as an important metric for evaluating how resilient an ecosystem will be to the impacts of climate change. Adaptation actions that increase ecological integrity will likely improve the resilience of ecosystems to the impacts of climate change and benefit the people who depend on them.

For example, high integrity peatlands in Canada allow species to migrate within them as climate conditions change within their existing habitats. As these ecosystems become more fragmented, the ability of species to move to new habitats lessens, putting them at greater risk. Similarly, high integrity coral reef ecosystems located in areas that are shielded from the more severe impacts of climate change, including several reefs off the coast of Tanzania, have the greatest potential to recover from climate change impacts. Protecting these resilient ecosystems is critical to the livelihoods and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of Tanzanians that depend on coral reefs for fisheries, coastal protection, and tourism.

At present, these links between ecological integrity and climate adaptation have been largely overlooked in practice and policy. Thus far, ecological integrity has not been incorporated into monitoring of climate adaptation outcomes or as a metric for meeting adaptation targets. Ecological integrity is also not consistently included, defined, and applied in multilateral environmental agreements, such the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, although its importance is increasingly recognized.

Recommendations for adaptation practice include explicitly incorporating the integrity concept in ecosystem-based adaptation guidance documents and calls for proposals from leading funders of adaptation projects, which currently scarcely or do not mention integrity. At the policy level, the authors describe an urgent need for addressing integrity specifically within multilateral environmental agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, using consistent definitions and approaches and developing quantifiable targets that raise the accountability of committed countries.

Said Paul Elsen, Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Scientist and lead author on the paper: “Failing to explicitly consider ecological integrity in conservation practice can undermine intended outcomes. For example, an intervention may expand the area of land under protection, but the ecological integrity of that area, which affects its ability to recover from disturbances is critically important for providing a range of positive adaptation outcomes for people and nature.”

This publication offers concrete guidance for decisionmakers and practitioners and could lead to an operational integrity framework for conservation and adaptation work. Such a framework would serve to evaluate conservation interventions to ensure they are meeting climate change mitigation, climate adaptation, and biodiversity goals.

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