EbA Revisited, Part 3: Are we overselling the promise of ecosystem-based adaptation?

by Shaun Martin, WWF

For a long time now I have had a major concern about ecosystem-based adaptation: Can we rely on ecosystems to help us adapt when those very ecosystems are themselves compromised by climate change? Can they deliver on the promise we are making to vulnerable communities?

Join the EbA bandwagon and the world is your oyster. Or is it? © Jason Rubens / WWF

Join the EbA bandwagon and the world is your oyster. Or is it? © Jason Rubens / WWF

I am confronted by this paradox time and again. One simply needs to look at headlines in the news and the contradictions become very apparent. One article promotes the value of ecosystems and biodiversity in helping people adapt – How Oysters Can Protect Houses from Hurricanes – while the next warns us that ecosystems are in trouble – Climate change is really bad news if you like oysters. So my question is, if it will be “harder for them (oysters) to survive because they’ll struggle to build or maintain their shells,” then can oyster beds really be a “valuable tool for protecting coastal communities from rising sea levels”?

And it doesn’t stop at oysters. Let’s take a look at mangroves, the star ecosystem of EbA. We have all seen many examples where mangroves are promoted as the savior of coastal communities. And, yes, there is lots of evidence that mangroves reduce storm surge and surface waves and thereby help protect coastal property and save lives. But for how long? What if something like this happens – Massive mangrove die-off on Gulf of Carpentaria worst in the world – where the combination of climate change and El Niño killed 7,000 hectares of mangroves over a period of several months? Do ecosystem-based adaptation efforts consider such possibilities in their design? My experience tells me not often enough.

Consider this study recently published by the World Bank that quantified coastal protection provided by mangroves for 42 developing countries under a future climate change scenario with a one-meter sea level rise and a 10 percent intensification of storms. One of the startling findings was that many countries will lose mangrove coverage simply because mangroves will not be able to migrate inland under a one-meter sea level rise scenario. The Philippines, for example, is at risk of losing 85 percent of its mangroves, and Mexico 100 percent! On the other hand, Bangladesh and Cuba would lose only 1 percent of their mangroves due to sea level rise. With this kind of information, I would feel much more at ease investing scarce resources for EbA in countries that have a greater chance of retaining their mangroves.

In our rush to promote conservation goals through new opportunities like EbA, are we potentially putting communities at greater risk by not considering to what extent and for how long ecosystems will provide adaptation services? And will those communities turn against conservationists when promised benefits are not delivered due to unforeseen climate impacts on ecosystems and risk that is either blindly or willfully ignored? A new briefing published by IIED, Ecosystem-based adaptation: a win–win formula for sustainability in a warming world?, states that “EbA activities should be designed in light of the best available science, but it is unclear whether the EbA targets set out in the INDCs derive from a scientific understanding of the effects of different management practices on ecosystems or take into account future climate change scenarios. A major challenge is to base future adaptation planning on both local needs and current ecosystem and climate science.” I couldn’t agree more. Unless we confront this challenge we are doing both people and nature a great disservice.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the differences between “ecosystem-based adaptation” and what I called “ecosystem-centric adaptation.” The first focuses on people, the latter on biodiversity. In practice, however, one needs both forms of adaptation. EbA cannot fully succeed unless we are simultaneously helping ecosystems continue to deliver services under the changing climate. And we need to fully understand the limits to how much we can help ecosystems and thus communities that rely upon them. EbA may not always be the right solution in the right place for the right time.

I am a firm believer in ecosystem-based adaptation. I am not arguing that EbA is a dead end and we that should stop considering its potential. Quite the opposite. I want to ensure there is continued interest and support for EbA far into the future, but realize the potential for failure if we do not carefully consider climate impacts on ecosystems when designing and building support for our work. Honest and open discussion between conservationists and communities, guided by shared values and grounded in forward-looking science and a realistic view of climate risk, is key to building momentum and sustained commitment to ecosystem-based adaptation. If done right, the world can still be our oyster!