Yesterday, the Climate Change Commission/He Pou a Rangi released its first package of advice on what New Zealand needs to do to become carbon neutral.
This advice comes as the frequency of natural disasters worldwide has doubled over the last 35 years, and about 90 per cent of those disasters are water-related.
Nearly 50 per cent of lives lost in natural disasters are from weather and climate-related events.
The human cost of climate change is enormous.
It's serendipitous that tomorrow happens to be International World Wetlands Day, because healthy living wetlands are nature's secret weapon for protecting us from deadly climate change events.
Wetlands are like a sponge for the landscape, reducing the effects of floods and droughts by holding and slowing water when there is too much from heavy rains.
When things are dry, wetlands release water slowly to keep connected streams, lakes, and rivers flowing.
Coastal wetlands and estuaries provide effective physical barriers, protecting the coasts with the gravel, sand, and soil that they have slowly built up over time. They naturally hold back sea level rise, storm surges, and even tsunamis.
When the Boxing Day tsunami swept South East Asia in 2004, it became one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
These images show the high glacier passes of Nanpa La and Nup La, located around 30 miles northwest of Mount Everest, during fall on October 13, 2020 and in winter on January 17, 2021. pic.twitter.com/cI7XouG0kY— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) January 28, 2021
One year later, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature noted the dense mangrove wetlands in some areas of Sri Lanka had saved human lives by slowing the advancing water. Healthy living mangroves had acted as a natural barrier to the giant waves.
All this, and wetlands are habitats for a wealth of native animals like whitebait and eels. Healthy wetlands increase the abundance of fish and provide a feeding ground for wading birds such as kōtuku and bittern.
Intact natural wetlands are our most sustainable, cost-effective, and ecologically sound climate adaptation solutions. They can literally save lives.
Wetlands are also among the most powerful landscapes on the planet when it comes to storing carbon.
Coastal wetlands, like mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses, can sequester carbon up to 60 times faster than tropical forests.
Peat wetlands occupy only 3 per cent of the Earth's surface but hold twice as much carbon as all of the world's forests combined.
Wet peatlands sequester carbon and drained peat wetlands leak carbon. Here in Aotearoa, 6 per cent of our agricultural emissions come from decaying peat currently being used for grazing.
🇪🇺 For the first time the EU got more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels in 2020.— Hannah Ritchie (@_HannahRitchie) January 28, 2021
Just added 2020 electricity data for the EU-27 & UK to @OurWorldInData.
This update comes from @EmberClimate – big thanks to them for their latest analysis.
Thread 👇 pic.twitter.com/TpXGZLp4un
Unfortunately, 90 per cent of New Zealand's wetlands have been destroyed. But this gives us an enormous opportunity to protect people and the climate by restoring what we once had.
Rewetting and re-establishing a substantial portion of our natural wetlands should form an essential part of our climate change response.
Restoring wetlands should also be in the Government's upcoming Adaptation Plan required by the Zero Carbon Act.
Incentivising farmers to restore wetlands on private land would reduce our emissions and improve our resilience to flood and drought.
New Zealand needs a national wetland restoration plan.
Let's set ourselves an ambitious target, such as doubling the area of New Zealand's natural wetlands.
Let's support landowners to protect and restore wetlands on private land.
Let's ensure councils are well resourced for monitoring compliance with new environmental protections, and make sure Resource Management Act reform improves wetland protections.
More than half of the missing peatland and coastal wetlands of Aotearoa are used for intensive farming of animals.
Even today wetlands are being destroyed, often on private land to make way for pasture or urban sprawl.
For example, Mangaroa Peatland is the largest peat expanse in the lower North Island, roughly 300ha in size. It could absorb as much carbon as roughly 12,500ha of forest. But right now, a portion of this wetland is being developed for housing.
We need to change the way we use land and water so it protects the whole community.
Tangata whenua have a long history of using resources from wetlands, and in Europe landowners are rewetting peatland to grow crops for fibres.
We could do that here with raupō (bullrush) and harekeke (flax).
Wetlands can be economically productive while they protect us from floods, clean our water, and give homes to our native animals. Wetlands are truly amazing.
When World Wetlands Day falls just two days after our climate reckoning, let's take it as a sign.
New Zealand can kick off our climate response with a national wetland restoration plan that protects our lives, our climate, our native species, and our future.
• Annabeth Cohen is a Forest & Bird freshwater advocate.