Conserving wild plants for the benefit of all.

Climate change

Plantlife at the Wave march, December 2009 © Tim Wilkins/Plantlife

Plantlife at the Wave march, December 2009 © Tim Wilkins/Plantlife

Climate change poses a unique challenge for plants. They cannot simply get up and leave if conditions become unsuitable and it is happening at a speed that is outstripping the rate at which plants can evolve.

Species distributions are changing and although our native flora is now experiencing frequent and more extreme weather events, plants are slower to respond than other wildlife.

Predictions suggest that species will migrate northwards and upwards in altitude as their climatic space moves. However, this migration is unlikely to be a smooth or uneventful one.

In the UK’s fragmented countryside, semi-natural habitats are not continuous enough to provide plants with sufficient suitable areas to colonise.

We propose that the decision makers should not neglect the many cost effective benefits of conserving wild plants and their habitats in reducing CO2 emissions, and equally that they should not ignore the potentially negative effects on plant diversity of certain climate change measures. Plants form the basis of life, the success of mankind’s ability to meet the challenges of climate change will depend on how well it conserves the world’s plants.

The threats to wild plants & habitats from some climate change measures:

Biofuels have been seen as a key tool of the EU and other state agencies across the world for reducing CO2 emissions, particularly for transport reliant on fossil fuels. However there is increasing evidence of the negative impacts of growing certain biofuels in terms of increasing deforestation, competition with food growing areas and the potential for increased poverty and forced resettlement of local populations. In addition unsustainable biofuel farming has several negative impacts on wild plant diversity, including the replacement of diverse agricultural systems with monocultures, the loss of species rich old growth forests, and the introduction of potentially invasive species into new areas. We would like to see all biofuel plans, including the EU biofuel target, subject to stringent sustainability and environmental impact assessments across the world.

Indiscriminate afforestation
Trees absorb CO2 and therefore all new tree-planting could be seen as a positive contribution to reducing CO2. However, indiscriminate afforestation is a threat to wild plants if it means that key habitats such as grasslands, peatlands and heaths are converted to forest. The key to effective afforestation measures lies in sustainable forestry strategies and effective environmental impact assessment processes, which avoids planting on key biodiversity areas for other habitat types. Information on key sites, such as Important Plant Areas, Important Bird Areas, RAMSAR wetland sites etc, is readily available to planners across the world. Afforestation programmes which focus on restoration of local forest types confer benefits for both biodiversity and for CO2 reduction.

Invasive species
Invasive species, which take over landscapes and cause declines or extinctions in local plant populations are seen as a key threat to biodiversity and are estimated to cost millions each year in control programmes. The introduction of crops as biofuels or non-native trees in afforestation projects has the potential to spread invasive species (plants, fungi, insects) into new areas. We propose that all biofuel and afforestation projects are subject to stringent environmental impact assessments before being released into new regions.

Why is preserving biodiversity so important, surely stopping climate change outweighs this issue?

Apart from the responsibility to ensure that we do not hand on an impoverished world to our children, there are many practical reasons for caring about the loss of plant diversity around the world. Wild plants, fungi and their habitats provide the basis of life for all other living things on earth. They are complex ecosystems which cannot be destroyed and recreated at will. Wild plant ecosystems rely on and support many other organisms including soil fungi, the insects which pollinate our crops, and the birds and animals of the world. As well as providing food for all other organisms they also supply wild plant medicines which represent the only healthcare option for many people around the world. Climate change measures without protection of species diversity and ecosystems are liable to create many new problems in addition to the threats already posed by climate change.

Wild plants and their habitats can adapt to the changing world around us but they need time to do this. Climate change planning should include policies which allow ecosystems to adapt and increase resilience such as ecological corridors between areas and populations. 168 governments around the world have committed to halting the loss of biodiversity through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). We urge these governments not to forget the importance of their pledges in their climate change planning.

What would we like governments to do?

  • Commit to binding cuts in CO2 emissions which include the conservation and restoration of wild plant habitats as cost effective measures for reducing CO2 and mitigating the effects of climate change.
  • Continue their commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) biodiversity targets, and ensure that CO2 reduction measures do not negatively affect biodiversity.
  • As a parallel process, commit to climate change adaptation strategies, including the establishment of ecological corridors, to reduce habitat fragmentation and increase the resilience of vital plant communities.