Paul Walton: We can do something about global warming and extinction – but we need to act now

Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species, RSPB Scotland
Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species, RSPB Scotland
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The opening decades of the 21st century have brought political and social upheavals which affect everyone and show no signs of abating. Our impact on the environment has become a ­ubiquitous reality. Nature everywhere, even in the deepest oceans, is subject to pressures from unsustainable human behaviours and over-consumption. The twin ­global crises of climate change and ecological damage have become manifest during our lifetimes, and the future of all life will depend on our next steps.

There is irony in this predicament. Our actions have put us on course for these entwined environmental ­crises at planetary scale. Yet, just as we set that course, our understanding of our place in nature has matured. We now have collective insight that all life on Earth is related, both in terms of shared origins, and of intricate ­ecological interdependencies. With this knowledge, framing humanity as just one integral and inter-reliant part of nature is no longer just an opinion – it is a fact.

Can we act in time to reflect this understanding? Can we secure a ­­habitable future for coming ­generations of both people and the ­non-human living world? Perhaps the most hopeful message in these febrile times is that, when we gather our best skill and knowledge, when we collaborate to analyse our present and look to the future, the answer yes emerges.

We can do what is required, but only if – and of all ‘big ifs’, this is the biggest – we enact transformative change, and do so urgently.

Calling for change without defining what change means is a strategy that the environmental movement is beginning to outgrow. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the UN in 1988 to assess and synthesise the evidence for climate change and its causes. The panel’s reports, impacting as they do on the almost incalculable financial weight and influence of the fossil fuel industry, have been controversial and challenging. Political responses have been ­faltering.

Yet, despite these vagaries, the IPCC has focused minds and efforts as ­never before, giving those who seek positive change a global reference, and policy makers meaningful ­targets. Young people are right to insist that we are not moving fast enough. Too many pivotal players still shirk their responsibilities. But there is a faint yet distinct scent on the warming wind that humanity might be beginning to move in a ­better direction – towards transformative change in relation to atmospheric carbon. It is no small matter that Scotland – through the work of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland ­coalition, of which RSPB Scotland is a part, and the far-sightedness of our ­parliamentarians – is in a real sense taking a lead.

The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was also established under the UN, in 2012. Formed in response to humanity’s failure to halt or even slow down the loss of biodiversity globally, its role is to inform and underpin the ­conservation and ­sustainable use of biodiversity. Like the IPCC, the deliberations of IPBES have had tumultuous moments and there will be more to come.

These are not simple challenges. However, with this year’s publication of the first IPBES Global Assessment, we now have our most accurate and authoritative calculation of where humanity stands in relation to nature. It concludes that we can halt and reverse the declines in ­biodiversity, and we can utilise nature sustainably.

Transformative change is an absolute prerequisite for success, but that change is ­deliverable within broad current socioeconomic realities if we enact a step-change in how diligently and intelligently we progress.

This means first accepting, as ­Scotland’s First Minister has said, that the challenges facing biodiversity are as important as the challenge of climate change. It means addressing both as deeply interconnected problems. The habitats of Scotland – peatlands, uplands, native woodlands – are high value carbon and ­biodiversity assets of global significance. Transformative change means enacting policies that enhance both.

For example, Scotland’s new forestry planting target of 15,000 hectares each year must deliver both carbon storage and biodiversity. If most planting is the familiar regimented stands dominated by non-native conifers, this target will never deliver for nature. We need the right trees in the right places, designed with nature as much in mind as ­carbon or profit.

If we invest our ingenuity to integrate policies, devise ­complementary solutions and tackle these twin global crises simultaneously, Scotland can again innovate and lead the way towards transformative change and a better world.

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species, RSPB Scotland.