Ramsar and climate change: report from Kyoto

Ramsar and climate change: report from Kyoto

23 December 1997

Wetlands and Climate Change - a report from Kyoto

by Ramsar's Special Consultant, Dr Ken Lum

The Third Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Kyoto was probably the most significant trade negotiation the world has ever undertaken. Not only that, the Kyoto Protocol also has extremely significant implications for the health of ecosystems including the world's wetlands.

At the heart of the issue are the calls for immediate action on limitations and reductions on greenhouse gas emissions. The urgency stems from recognition of the inertia of the climate system and the conclusion by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that only about half, or less, of the global warming due to observed increases in greenhouse gas concentrations has so far occurred. The inertia implies that any measure taken to slow down the warming will become effective only gradually. And moreover, the inertia of the climate system also implies that once a significant change of climate has occurred, it will not disappear quickly, even if drastic measures were to be taken after the change.

At Kyoto, the IPCC emphasized that striving for more efficient use of energy, while essential, will not suffice in trying to come to grips with the climate change issue. There is therefore an urgent need to increase the efforts aimed at developing other, non-carbon-emitting primary energy sources. In the case of use of mangrove forests and fuel from wetlands, a shift towards renewable energy sources will clearly reduce the stress on wetlands from this type of activity.

At Kyoto, climate change was highlighted as a major stress on ecosystems and water resources adding to those from human alteration and pollution as well as other indirect effects of the utilization of natural resources. Among the ecosystems that are most likely to experience the most severe effects from climate change are those that are at higher latitudes such as Boreal forests and tundra, as well as those where different habitat types converge, such as where grasslands meet forests, or forests give way to alpine vegetation.

The geographical distribution of wetlands is likely to shift with changes in temperature and precipitation, with uncertain implications for net greenhouse gas emissions from non-tidal wetlands. Some coastal ecosystems (saltwater marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls and river deltas) are particularly at risk from climate change and other stresses. Changes in these ecosystems would have major negative effects on freshwater supplies, fisheries, biodiversity and tourism.

Many of these ecosystems, already under stress from human activities, may be significantly altered or diminished in terms of their extent and productivity as a result of future climate change.

An opportunity of Ramsar and the wetlands community

At Kyoto, there was considerable debate on the issue of natural sources and sinks and their use or abuse in offsetting carbon emissions and in a global emissions trading system. This is largely because of the margins of error, such that an accurate calculation for terrestrial sources and sinks is not presently possible. In addition there is the issue of time Ð viz. to have the same effect as avoiding fuel emissions, carbon stored through afforestation projects (or indeed wetland creation, restoration and protection programs), would have to remain locked out of the atmosphere for a long time. There does not appear to be any scientific basis on which the integrity of forests and wetland systems as carbon stores can be guaranteed for decades let alone centuries.

Based on the deficiencies and gaps in methodologies and knowledge of carbon cycling and storage in ecosystems, Ramsar and the wetlands community could contribute its collective expertise in preparing a chapter or chapters with a focus on guidelines and methodology on how to assess the wide range of wetland types for the IPCC Third Assessment Report which are scheduled for approval by late 2000 or early 2001.

In addition, an observational network for early detection and accurate description of the expected climate changes in the future is essential to provide as solid a foundation as possible for dealing with the climate change issue. The work of Ramsar and the wetlands community on assessment of wetlands and in monitoring change in ecological character would be an important contribution towards this goal.

And given the considerable attention at Kyoto on increased outbreaks of some infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes and other water-borne diseases, and the decreased availability of drinking water related to climate-induced change in hydrological patterns, there is scope as well for a contribution that responds to the resolution on Ramsar and Water.