Help animals, help humans: Wildlife boss wants nature at heart of Cop28

Head of International Animal Rescue says protecting nature and climate go 'hand in hand'

Mangroves in countries such as Haiti act as a natural defence against rising sea levels. AP
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He may run an animal charity but “all of our work starts with the people”, says Gavin Bruce, who says protecting wildlife is not only good for fish and orangutans but humans too.

Mr Bruce, the chief executive of International Animal Rescue, is urging leaders at the Cop28 summit in Dubai to embrace this solve-two-problems-at-once line of thinking.

“Any efforts to restore and protect habitats will have huge benefit for wildlife and a huge benefit for climate. The two things go hand in hand,” he told The National.

He gives this example: climate change threatens farmers because of rising sea levels. Restoring mangroves rebuilds their natural defences, meaning farmers do not need to go to the forest to illegally log to clear more land. In this way, you help the farmers, help forest wildlife and slow the climate change that caused the problem in the first place, because trees that remove carbon from the air are saved.

Another example: climate change, it is feared, worsens the impact of extreme weather events connected to the El Nino phenomenon. That can bring hot, dry weather, leading to “loads of emissions because everything catches fire”, Mr Bruce says. The fires burn down forests which, in turn, makes climate change worse and is bad for wildlife.

Cop28 organisers have made “nature, people, lives and livelihoods” one of the event's four priorities. One day of the summit, December 9, will focus on “nature, land use and oceans” as part of a schedule of themed discussions.

The summit beginning in Dubai on November 30 will mark the first “global stocktake”, when countries assess how much progress has been made in the climate battle.

“Given the contribution that nature can play in it I would definitely like to see that recognised in some language coming out of it,” Mr Bruce said.

“For us there’s such an inextricable link between the role nature can play in mitigating climate, and the impact climate change is having on biodiversity and nature – that should be recognised.”

The world adopted 23 biodiversity targets at a summit in Canada last year, which although non-binding were hailed as a breakthrough for protecting nature.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Cop28 President-designate and UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, encouraged nature-rich countries in a recent letter to come to Cop28 with “clear national investment plans” in support of climate and biodiversity goals.

“one health” approach in which the well-being of humans and the natural environment are taken together.

“You’ve got the World Health Organisation dealing with health; the climate agenda dealing with climate; biodiversity. They’re sort of linked but it feels looser than it could be,” he said.

“We are at that sort of tipping point. Land use is a big issue for nature and biodiversity but climate change is coming up as a pretty close second and worsening the situation.”

Although we come from a wildlife background, all of our work starts with the people
Gavin Bruce, International Animal Rescue

The ocean is already feeling the impact, with effects such as the loss of coral reefs, and acts as a “great bellwether of what's going on” around the world, Mr Bruce said.

“So many livelihoods depend on it but we’re seeing record sea temperatures which changes the whole chemistry of the water, fish stocks are being reduced as a result of it,” he said.

“Then the knock-on effect for things like El Nino, more extreme weather events, which then has a knock-on effect with things like fires.”

As well as trying to slow climate change (mitigation in UN-speak), Mr Bruce is keen to see the world prepare for its impact (adaptation).

His charity works with the farmers on the edge who “have no choice” but to encroach on the forest if their coastal land becomes submerged.

“By working with those local people on resilience and adaptation and more advanced farming techniques, mangrove restoration to protect their farms from seawater ingress, from sea-level rise and bigger storm surges that are coming, we improve their quality of life and prosperity significantly,” he said.

“They have a healthier, more prosperous life, the forest is protected and there’s a climate benefit as well.”

Political battle

This vision of a happy ending is not shared by all.

Climate and nature can come into conflict when, for example, wind turbines built to reduce CO2 emissions prove dangerous for passing birds, although many activists say this downside is exaggerated.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England cited the risk of “significant harm” to the countryside in an appeal not to go overboard with onshore wind in the UK.

An EU law on protecting nature was watered down after Brussels horse-trading, with targets on protecting farmland removed from the package agreed to last week.

Original plans including returning 10 per cent of farmland to nature would have pushed up food prices and been “a disaster for farmers, forest owners [and] fishermen”, said conservative negotiator Christine Schneider.

But Mr Bruce is adamant that the solution lies in restoring a relationship between humanity and nature that is “a bit broken”.

“We’re learning our lessons the hard way,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic that, according to one prevalent theory, erupted from a wildlife market.

“Although we come from a wildlife background, all of our work starts with the people.

“How can we work with the local people in the local communities and the local villages to improve their prosperity and well-being and get a climate or biodiversity advantage at the same time?”

Updated: November 22, 2023, 11:33 AM