Interview with Thomas Elmqvist, professor in natural resource management at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. His work is interdisciplinary, exploring the dynamics of social ecological systems where humans are connected to ecosystems and its feedbacks and interactions. He led the UN-initiated global project “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” and the Future Earth Project Urban Planet. He currently serves as Editor-in-chief for the Nature Research journal on Urban Sustainability, and as associate editor for the journals Sustainability Science, and Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.
What was your initial reaction to the Nature Restoration Law proposal?
Thomas Elmqvist: I was quite pleased to see this proposal from the European Commission and I hope that it will go through the European Parliament without being watered down too much. Nature restoration is a very interesting type of social ecological dynamic and interaction where humans are actively engaged in restoring functions, to promote services in the landscape. We live in a decade of ecological restoration as declared by the United Nations and I think what the EU is trying to do is very important, to lead the way towards a target of 20%. I think that there is a lot of engagement from civil society as well and that the awareness now of the climate crisis will also increase people’s interest in taking more care of nature.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of nature restoration?
Thomas Elmqvist: There will be important challenges. There needs to be careful thinking and design in urban and peri-urban areas. There is overwhelming data that shows the important role of nature in mediation that will help cities adapt to warmer climate, particularly to heat waves but also to peaks in precipitation. For most urban planners, I think they will include aspects of expanding green spaces, investing in green roofs, and other types of measures to better adapt cities to climate change.
There are resources, knowledge and incentives in cities that could actually be done. I truly believe that you could have grand plans on EU-wide level but they will be always implemented locally in municipalities. It is really important to have them on board and to have them lead the way. You can see that there are many cities across Europe that are engaged in this, for multiple reasons, climate adaptation being one but also the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of green spaces in easing and promoting health.
The Nature Restoration Law proposal has targets specifically on urban green spaces and ecosystems. Why are these important?
Thomas Elmqvist: They are important for human health, both mental and physical. There is also overwhelming scientific evidence to show that, when looking into the future to adapt cities to the coming climate change, we will get hotter summers, we will also get more erratic precipitation, with sometimes really huge peaks and risk of flooding. One way of addressing that is through vegetation to reduce temperature and reduce flooding risk, while at the same time, those green spaces will have an important function in helping people to maintain good health.
What do you think of the specific, binding targets on urban green space proposed? (No net loss of green urban space by 2030, increase of these by 3% by 2040, by 5% by 2050; additional targets on urban tree canopy cover, integration into buildings)
Thomas Elmqvist: They could have been a bit more ambitious maybe, but I believe in some cases, local governments may go further anyway as they will know the value of moving in this direction. I think it is important to put some minimum standards, also from an equity perspective; Member States should mobilise resources and poorer municipalities should get support to reach a minimum at least.
Why are cities, local governments and municipalities important in this issue? Can you tell me more about your work on this?
Thomas Elmqvist: The work to involve local governments in the Convention on Biological Diversity started in 2010, there was a plan of action adopted for local governments. One component was to produce a scientific review of the opportunities and challenges when it comes to urbanisation and biodiversity and ecosystem services (UN Biodiversity and Cities Outlook). I led that work with a large, international team, financed by Japan that was hosting that COP meeting. We published this Cities and Biodiversity Outlook in 2013.
We then continued with an update in 2018 looking at not just biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities but also at the impact of cities on the region and the hinterland. We produced some analysis showing that by 2030 more than 40% of the world’s protected areas (that includes all national parks, nature preserves), will, due to urban expansion, be within 50 kilometres of a city. So, it is really important for local governments to address this, that cities and municipalities around the world will have to learn to coexist with nature, to avoid it being degraded. Local governments must be proactive and they have a responsibility for that 40% of the world’s most precious areas.
There has been criticism of the twice delaying of the Nature Restoration Law proposal; what are your thoughts on policy attention and action on crises in both the short-term and long-term?
Thomas Elmqvist: There are a number of trade-offs for policymakers in addressing short-term needs and solving long-term challenges. I think one important aspect to point out here is that all the opportunities that investing in biodiversity and ecosystem services are not something that will represent an additional burden on local governments’ budgets, but are actually necessary and perhaps a very financially feasible and economically suitable way to address climate change adaptation.
For example, instead of investing in very expensive, heavily technological and engineering solutions, you could get similar effects by using natural mediation but at a lower cost. You would also have additional effects: if you invest in a green space for reducing ambient temperature, you will also have some effect on reducing flood risk, and some effect on the mental and physical health of people actively using that area. There is a long list of these additional effects. So local governments will have to consider trade-offs, but I think in using nature, we are presented with relatively inexpensive ways of achieving goals.
What kind of policies and initiatives will be important?
Thomas Elmqvist: I think cities should be engaged in the region where they are located. For example, be a part of supporting wetland restoration which represents low hanging fruit: a minor investment can achieve fantastic environmental goals, in rewetting a wetland, you may turn an area from being a carbon emitter to something that would capture and store carbon, while at the same time enhancing biodiversity and reducing flood risk. That is why this is high on the Commission’s agenda, to restore wetlands and I think local governments could be an important factor to support that.
It can be positive but it all depends on also being successful in reaching the targets of the Paris Agreement. Because if we have a runaway climate situation, then no matter what we do it will not help us in the long run.
I think there is so much we could do with restoration, particularly in Europe. We are living in a cultural landscape which has been influenced by humans for thousands of years and most of the biodiversity in the European landscape is often dependent on some type of human activity or grazing by animals. That means we need to restore those functions.
Going into agriculture, there are so many things connected that a slight change in diet in Europe could have enormous consequences for land use and open up possibilities for restoration, enhancing biodiversity, capturing and storing carbon. I think the agricultural landscape has been underestimated in carbon storage, for example grasslands is a habitat with high capacity to store carbon.
On the positive side, you do not need to do huge changes, investments can be in smaller things like the margins around fields or rows of trees, these could add up to make a huge difference if done by a sufficient number of landowners. If designed properly, you increase connectivity in the landscape. Even modest investments could have significant impact on biodiversity and carbon.