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Human response to climate change is making matters worse

Ecologist

19th August, 2010

Our attempts to adapt to, and mitigate, the effects of climate change, such as using biofuels, could worsen the direct effects of climate change on our ecoystems

The worst impacts of climate change may come about as a result of how humans respond to it, suggests a study by conservationists.

While there has been a significant amount of focus on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, little consideration has been given to the impact of our responses to climate change, says the study published in the journal Conservation Letters this month.

Biofuels


Renewable energy, for example, is a crucial part of every national and international strategy for curbing emissions, including plans to promote biofuels. However, rising ethanol production has been linked to losses of grassland habitats, while booming demand for palm oil, some of which is turned into biodiesel, is fuelling the clearance of biodiverse-rich forests across south-east Asia.

'Although the notion that converting tropical forests and grasslands to biofuel crops will generally decrease net carbon emissions has been debunked, reducing GHG emissions remains an oft-invoked justification for expanding biofuel production into these habitats,' says the study.

It also highlights the damage caused by hydropower projects like China's Three Gorges Dam, which destroyed many biodiverse mountain habitats in central China as well as creating further pressure on biodiversity as new areas were cleared to support displaced agriculture.

Mass migration


In other examples, the authors say historic responses to climatic changes have led to 'increased exploitation' of natural ecosystems.

Reconstruction following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 damaged ecosystems in Indonesia through un-corodinated sand and gravel extraction, increased logging, and siting of new housing in biodiverse habitats. And drought-fuelled migrations in Burkina Faso in the late 20th century led to huge areas of forest and savanna being converted to cropland and a 50 per cent loss of natural vegetation in some areas.

The report says one fifth of the world’s remaining tropical forests lie within 50km of human populations that could be inundated if sea levels rise by 1m. These forests would make attractive sources of fuel-wood, building materials, food and other key resources and would be likely to attract a population forced to migrate by rising sea levels.

Biodiversity to lose out


The study authors say that policymakers - particularly in less industrialised countries where there is a lack of financial resources to adapt - will increasingly face difficult decisions between mitigation and adaptation efforts and biodiversity.

'Climate is already changing, and governments and people are already implementing measures to mitigate emissions and, to a minor extent, to adapt to a new and different world... we must, however, ensure that these responses do not compromise the biodiversity and ecosystem services upon which societies ultimately depend,' they conclude.

Dr Tom Crompton, climate change strategist at WWF, said the findings were in line with WWF's work and that existing policies for tackling climate change were inadequate.

'We cannot continue living as we are living and maintaining consumption levels as we do while making changes for example switching to biofuels, which will have knock-on effects that we will only realise further down the line.

'It's like squeezing a balloon. You squeeze in one place and it pops out in another,' he said.

Useful links

Climate change: helping nature survive the human response

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