Incorporating net zero targets into future economic planning could deliver jobs, short-term financial returns on investments and long-term savings when compared to traditional fiscal approaches.
It is now a little less than a year before the United Kingdom will act as host to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) and at this time the “race to zero” commitment of the Paris Agreement looms ever larger on the horizon. The goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions, sometimes referred to as carbon neutrality, requires a global effort to balance these emissions and their removal from our atmosphere. Here, the UK Government have set a date for net zero at 2050, while my own University have their sights on the more ambitious target of 2035. This might, of course, seem like a daunting task at the very moment when the engines of our global economic recovery are poised to fire-up in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The recent UN Secretary-General's initiative to identify climate-related actions to shape the global COVID-19 recovery, highlights this alternative way forward - a clean, green transition to economies built on green jobs and sustainable growth to empower societies and people, allowing them to be more resilient by incorporating climate risks and opportunities into the financial system as well as all aspects of public policy making and infrastructure. Incorporating net zero targets into future economic planning is compelling because such policies, if implemented well, could deliver jobs, short-term financial returns on investments and long-term savings when compared to traditional fiscal approaches.
Indeed, the UK Government seems prepared to go further, signalling its political commitment to a “Nature Covenant” that tackles the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity (habitat) loss. These so-called nature-based solutions are particularly compelling, yet they currently receive only 3 per cent of climate finance. Reports, such as the Dasgupta Review (2019; led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta), highlight new opportunities for the economics of biodiversity and for the mobilization of increased finance for nature. The situation is clear, action on nature must become central to the global discourse and should be reflected in policies and commitments to sustainably managing these natural resources and the benefits they provide.
In 2019, visiting southern India for the first time, I began to explore opportunities to collaborate on a new approach to the management of vulnerable coastal wetland habitats after visiting the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests (Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu).
A year later, in January 2020, a visit to Ahmedabad University on behalf of the University of St Andrews, partly to explore research and student exchange opportunities, crystallized the idea for a new research project. Our project, Sustainable Coastal Habitats, Blue Carbon and the Challenges of Net Zero is funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and will focus on India's coastal wetlands and mangrove forests as important blue carbon systems which can deliver sustainable management solutions for coastal environments and their communities, while potentially contributing to India's national greenhouse gas accounting and net zero targets.
Coastal wetland restoration and protection practices (which store vast quantities of blue carbon in above-ground plant biomass and below ground organic-rich soils) are important to climate change mitigation; they have a global mitigation potential in carbon dioxide equivalents of 1-2 Pg y-1, which is higher than the estimated potential of any agricultural or grassland option, and is comparable to the combined potential impact of restoration and protection of global peatlands (and Scotland, as anyone who enjoys malt whisky knows, is blessed by its abundance of peatlands).
In Gujarat, coastal wetlands extend to 28,071 km2, contributing 23 per cent of India′s wetland area. These remarkable wetlands are important for ecology, flora and fauna and constitute nine Protected Areas - one national park, seven sanctuaries and one conservation reserve to preserve a total area of 13,052 km2.
Benefits of this work, which includes a collaboration with Ahmedabad University and the University of Aberdeen, will be a new framework for the understanding of blue carbon resources (and carbon sequestration potential) in India, including a direct engagement plan with State Government mangrove conservation projects, local officials, local communities and NGOs. In the short-term, we will use the work to highlight the potential of India′s coastal wetlands to deliver significant climate mitigation services, while also focusing on key socio-economic pathways that will deliver improved opportunities for these local coastal communities. We have assembled a team with a strong track-record to deliver clear and tangible gender enhancement in the project; we will support opportunities for women in the recommendations that we make.
William Austin is a Professor at the School of Geography & Sustainable Development at University of St Andrews and part of the Sustainable Coastal Habitats, Blue Carbon and the Challenges of Net Zero project.