Healthy Habitats

Underlying the discussions about carbon levels and energy efficiency is another, arguably much more crucial issue that tends to take second place in both policy and activism. The issue is that of healthy habitats. It is healthy soil that provides the ability to grow healthy food. Healthy river and stream catchments yield a regular supply of healthy water. Healthy peatlands, oceans and woodlands all play an invaluable role in providing atmospheric gaseous exchange; in other words healthy air to breathe.

Without healthy habitats our basic survival requirements become severely undermined. Note that this is just the benefits to humans. Our divorce from the natural world is such that we can pretend that we don’t actually live fully immersed in these habitats. In actual fact we do. We are inextricably interconnected at both local and global levels to the place in which we live, and tied to the health and fortunes on a community scale and in the wider context of this planet, or common home. Other species can’t even pretend. Healthy habitats are where they life, where they sleep, where they hunt and feed and forage, where they find company and companionship and courtship. Who are we as a single species to decimate their home?

Through the narrow metric of carbon budgets, healthy habitats are also invaluable. Carbon is the foundational molecule of life on this planet, and as such it is present where there is life in abundance. Thus carbon dioxide from the air is stored in solid form in all manner of healthy habitats. The two we are most familiar with here in Ireland are woodlands and peatlands. In these places it is very visible that when you remove the habitat, or the degrade the health of the habitat, you remove the carbon stores and convert them to atmospheric carbon dioxide again. Other habitats undergo exactly the same basic process. Oceans, soils, riparian wetlands, scrublands and grasslands (with the full suite of flora and fauna present) all store carbon and thus help to reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Something that is becoming increasingly evident is that climate change is more than just about carbon. Floods and droughts, temperature extremes and forest fires all have multiple causes. Climatic system breakdown is one of these, but another, arguably more important one, is the health of the habitats in the area. Remove riparian wetlands and not only do you interfere with global carbon balances, but you also directly disrupt the capacity of the catchment to regulate the hydrological balance. Thus flooding and drought can both become more prevalent. Clear woodlands and not only carbon and the same flooding/drought challenges are at issue, but over a large enough area the biotic pump action that trees perform can become disrupted. Thus by clearing coastal forest cover along the perimeter of continents, the interior loses the rainfall that was brought by successive evapotranspirative cycles. Thus the entire ecosystem process that had kept interior rainforest habitat intact breaks down. Not necessarily due to climate or temperature per se, but due to direct encroachment into the health of the habitat that keeps the biological processes in a functioning homeostatic state.

Of course carbon, temperatures, habitats and water are all inextricably linked. Happily, when we protect habitats and keep them healthy, or when we regenerate habitats from a degraded state to a wilder, healthier state, we tend to have climatic regulation, carbon sequestration, water filtration and hydrological balance. As long as we focus on carbon as the sole metric of interest, we will continue on our current trajectory of seemingly endless encroachment into natural habitat space. I’m sure that human ingenuity can build carbon capture machines at great expense to do that work that trees and bogs will do for free, but that won’t address the myriad of other interrelated issues that besiege us in the current era. Protecting and restoring healthy habitats requires a commitment to give the natural world some space at a table that has been completely preoccupied with economic growth. Nonetheless, protecting and restoring habitats is an essential part of the wider process of moving towards planetary health and the health of all of the systems that give us the means to live. It’s also a lot more beautiful than the factory-built alternatives.

We call on our policy makers to include a broader appraisal of climate health than simply a measure of carbon balances. Perhaps it is time to take the easy route, the clearly visible route, the hitherto somewhat strangely unpopular route, and do the very straightforward work of restoring habitats on a grand scale in Ireland. Protect all existing intact wild spaces; restore crucial wetland and woodland habitats throughout the country; and rebuild healthy soils and the microhabitat that spreads across the length and breadth of the land. Funding of this work is crucial, along with a clear appraisal of policy and legislation that currently stands in the way of such work.

The wonderful thing about working with habitats as a climate measure is that the results are visible almost immediately. Whereas carbon savings offer only abstract feedback images of graphs and charts; habitat restoration immediately provides beautiful places to visit, living trees and other plants and animals to watch and enjoy, as well as near-term tangible benefits for flood control, drought resilience, hydrological regulation in rivers and streams, more birdsong, sweeter air and cleaner water.

Featured photo by Coralie Meurice on Unsplash.

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