Europe and Central Asia

Using nature to help nature adapt to climate change

By Harm Schoten, 19 Nov 2015

Climate change and the alarming rate of biodiversity decline caused by rising temperatures worldwide are perhaps the most serious environmental challenges that society faces today. And it’s not just plants, birds and animals – humans are also already being affected, and the impact is only set to get worse.

Especially in countries like the Netherlands, where more than a quarter of the land area is below sea level, urgent action is required to mitigate the effects of global warming. The Netherlands (especially the Wadden Sea) is also at an important crossroads for many migratory birds as they fly south from Europe to Africa during the winter. Vogelbescherming Nederland (VBN, BirdLife in the Netherlands) is working with the Dutch government and nature management organizations on a long-term nature-based National Adaptation Plan to do just that.

Designed in the 1990s, the Dutch National Ecological Network (NEN) aims to span 750.000 hectares by 2027 (roughly 18% of the Netherlands and including national parks and Natura 2000 sites). In addition, more than six million hectares of waterscape – lakes, rivers, the Wadden Sea and part of the North Sea – will be protected. A network with robust connections and optimal conditions will, when current habitats become inhospitable, help species migrate to more favourable areas and climate zones to reduce the risk of extinctions.

This ecological network will also help mitigate the effects of climate change through nature-based solutions like flood risk management, protecting biodiversity, improving air quality, sustainable energy production, and promoting healthy soils. Adaptation therefore means building strategies that increase the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change (resilience) and enable species and habitats to move into areas with more suitable climatic conditions (accommodation).

When it was first launched, public and political support for the Dutch NEN was high and, because the economic outlook for farming was poor, many farmers were willing to sell their land for nature conservation. However, since then, political and agricultural support has dwindled. This has led to budget cuts and the abolition of the national government body responsible for NEN implementation, leaving provinces to decide for themselves how to meet NEN targets.

These setback have not diminshed the need for this network. In some of the Netherlands’ very low-lying wetlands, it has been difficult during the last decade to pump excess water into the sea due to higher sea levels (for example, the city of Groningen’s hospital was evacuated and museum flooded when high rainfall combined with high water levels flooded the city).

Since then, several thousands of hectares of new shallow wetland has been created around the city. They can absorb water in times of flood and provide water in a dry spell.

Since 2006, the Climate Buffer Coalition – a coalition of Dutch nature organizations, including VBN – has delivered 20 habitat restoration projects funded by the Dutch government as part of the National Adaptation Plan.

These climate buffers are areas where natural processes have been used to increase defence against flooding, as opposed to building sea walls and dykes that tend to damage natural habitats. Ground water levels in marshland areas were raised, resulting in reduced maintenance costs for Water Boards. Sea walls were strengthened not with basalt but by depending on morphological sand processes, creating new beaches and natural banks.

Interventions such as these or the one in Groningen have not only increased the NEN network, but also provided new ‘climate-buffer’ habitats for several marshland birds, such as the White-Winged Tern, Whiskered Tern and Baillon’s Crake, resulting in an increase of their European breeding range. It has also benefited the local economy thanks to increased accessibility of the natural climate buffer areas, which has led to higher visitor numbers.

These and other biodiversity-friendly landscape measures can increase the resilience of the Natura 2000 network to climate change, facilitate the northward range expansion of European species and benefit people by protecting ecosystems that they depend on for their livelihood. However, a significant increase in funding for adaptation measures is needed, especially for the most vulnerable communities and ecosystems.