Collaborating Across Crises: Why Tackling Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change Together is the Best
Updated: Oct 9
Shayne Paynter, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Water Resources & Claire Wansbury, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Ecology
One of the world’s leading professional services and project management organisations, SNC Lavalin & Atkins, will be joining this year's World Biodiversity Summit as Principal Partner. At the Summit, Dr. Marie Honeycutt, PhD, CFM, National Director for All – Hazards Resilience at AtkinsRéalis, will bring forth her insights as a closing session speaker on advancing joint efforts in climate and biodiversity actions.
In this article, Shayne Paynter, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Water Resources, and Claire Wansbury, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Ecology, share why tackling biodiversity loss and climate change together offers the most promising solution for our environment.
Climate change and the biodiversity-loss crisis have a complex relationship. Despite being viewed as distinct crises, their interconnectedness means solutions intended to mitigate one, tend to influence the other—and not always positively. To meet the challenges of both, we must consider biodiversity and climate change holistically, establishing early-stage communication between stakeholders across both areas. Otherwise, we will struggle to make collaborative, efficient and long-term choices.
It is well understood that climate and living environments are connected systems, and they influence one another in a variety of ways. However, when it comes to designing and implementing interventions, we still tend to treat them either as separate problems, or only focus on a single issue. The reality is much more nuanced.
Moreover, the relationship between climate change and biodiversity is not always straightforward. What is beneficial for carbon reduction is sometimes harmful to biodiversity and vice versa. If we continue to treat them separately, we will suffer unintended consequences, struggle to make trade-offs and get stuck with short-term solutions lacking resilience and requiring replacement or upgrades. This results in higher risks and poorer outcomes, hampering our efforts to achieve net zero and restore a rapidly depleting natural environment.
To do so, we must adopt methodologies capable of recognising the complex relationship between climate change and biodiversity. We must endeavor to shape interventions to their particular location, rather than applying standardised solutions indiscriminately. Rigid ways of working must be replaced by flexible, open and collaborative approaches that can enrich our plans with insights from different disciplines. Backed by data and digital tools, this holistic approach can engineer a better future for the planet and its people. Achieving it, however, means understanding both the limitations of siloed approaches to climate change and biodiversity loss and how to move beyond them.
Separation is no Solution
While climate change and biodiversity are distinct issues, tackling them individually can make things worse.
Tree planting can help remove carbon from the air and continue to aid our efforts to mitigate climate change. But tree planting without a proper understanding of biodiversity can damage the natural environment. '
- Shayne Paynter, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Water Resources & Claire Wansbury, Atkins Fellow and Technical Director, Ecology
Given that the natural environment and climate change are ultimately indivisible, solutions that reduce carbon while harming biodiversity are not sustainable in the long term.
In the UK, tree planting has been incentivised by the government, but in the past, a lack of proper integration with biodiversity has occasionally produced perverse outcomes. Decades ago in Scotland, there was an outcry when peat bog, a highly effective carbon sink, was planted over with non-native conifers, harming the local ecosystem and the communities depending on it. When undamaged, peat bog is incredibly good at capturing carbon. But when damaged, it releases carbon, turning it from an ally in the fight against climate change to part of the problem. We must learn from past mistakes like these so as not to repeat them.
If we treat issues individually, without understanding their ecological and social context, even well-intentioned interventions can do more harm than good. In turn, incentives and regulations that are not developed holistically may inadvertently promote short-term, myopic behavior. Trade-offs are inevitable — environmental interventions may sometimes slow gross domestic product (GDP) growth for example. However, there are also many examples where environmental interventions also support GDP growth, as many parts of our economy directly depend on the natural environment. Failing to restore biodiversity while mitigating and adapting to climate change will harm our economy and society. Trade-offs are harder to make when different areas are not communicating, increasing the risk of poor choices or unintended consequences.
Tackling Turbulence Together
Both climate change and the biodiversity-loss crisis are urgent — and to tackle them effectively, we will have to be efficient. A holistic approach that comprehends both can yield vital efficiencies. To protect against climate change and biodiversity loss, nature is our biggest ally and also a great multitasker. Unlike gray infrastructure, nature-based solutions tend to yield a multitude of benefits across different vectors. For example, building a seawall contributes very little to the environment itself, other than protecting areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. However, if planned wisely, creating a wetland swamp provides natural drainage and water and carbon sequestration while also enhancing the biodiversity of the local area and contributing to tourism and local wellbeing. These choices are not necessarily obvious. However, if we are to make long-term, optimal decisions for our planet and its people, a diverse set of experts and stakeholders must be included in these conversations from the very beginning.
Moreover, a holistic approach to biodiversity loss and climate change can also improve environmental outcomes, especially around resilience. With greenhouse gasses at a 100 million-year high, climate disruption is inevitable, even if we achieve carbon net zero. Therefore, resilience must be about safeguarding communities against harm, such as the likely effects of a volatile climate and vulnerable natural environment. Yet, with the climate changing faster than at any other point in human history, solutions run the risk of requiring enhancement or even becoming obsolete in the near future. Nature-based solutions are the answer because they are more responsive to their environment, allowing them to adapt more harmoniously to environmental changes. For example, the reintroduction of certain species can help restore depleted ecosystems in a self-sustaining way. Likewise, the development of wetlands can provide natural flood defense with fewer maintenance and improvement costs than man-made infrastructure.
However, we must consider this sensitivity can also render these nature-based solutions more vulnerable to climatic and environmental change. Unlike a concrete seawall, a seagrass meadow or mangrove swamp will be sensitive to changes in temperature and pollution. This should not discourage nature-based solutions, but instead, promote a more informed approach. Each area and project must be treated holistically, with the benefits and drawbacks assessed within their social, environmental and economic contexts. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Nature-based solutions must be properly integrated with their surrounding ecosystems, or they may do more harm than good. Also, while there is no single solution, holistic, nature-based solutions are typically cheaper in the long term.
Innovate to Integrate
Developing holistic solutions requires expertise across both biodiversity and climate change. It requires early-stage stakeholder engagement, so plans can be enriched by multiple perspectives prior to design. Neither of these approaches are easy. Many organisations simply do not have the resources in place to enable in-depth collaboration between a diverse range of experts and stakeholders in the earliest stages of a project. In addition, many holistic solutions reflect creative solutions not easily captured by the checkboxes of the current regulatory framework and can take time to get approved even when considered superior to traditional approaches. Investors are often eager to see progress, and the urgency of both the climate and environmental crises is growing — therefore, the temptation to get started as soon as possible is strong.
An example of a traditional versus holistic approach is the Old Tampa Bay circulation improvement project in Florida. Tampa Bay is a large, estuarine system that has made great strides in reducing nitrogen, improving water quality, seagrass growth and the associated benthic wildlife and habitat. One area behind a causeway was filled in during the 1930s, worsening tidal circulation, water quality and a depauperate ecosystem. This area was also adjacent to a highway interchange project that required large stormwater collection systems to reduce nitrogen from proposed improvements.
Opening of Courtney Campbell Causeway to tidal flow during construction.
However, instead of spending millions on such systems for minimal return on nitrogen reduction, money was spent investigating how to improve tidal circulation and flushing in the area depauperate of seagrass. A team of biologists, scientists, geologists, botanists, coastal, water resource and environmental engineers designed and permitted a bridge cut in the causeway to flush stagnant water, improve water quality and create conditions conducive to seagrass growth. Once completed, more than 10,000 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen were reduced over a potential growth area of 300 acres. Despite being equivalent to hundreds of traditional stormwater management systems and having full regulatory support, it took two years to permit because it required establishing a first-of-its-kind water quality and seagrass credit bank. Two years of water quality monitoring indicated the project improved water quality by 80%, with water clarity and the presence of species visibly improved. A client audit indicated the project saved $100 million in costs over traditional project-by-project approaches.
A tracer dye test was performed for radial flow and dispersal success criteria.
Deliverance through Data
Improvements in data gathering and processing are making early stage needs assessments easier. We can now gather, analyse and share data with greater finesse and dexterity, allowing different teams to see the same information and make joint decisions. Common data environments, designed and disseminated at an early stage, help ensure collaboration between teams that might otherwise never share insights. Digital tools can identify and compare the whole-life carbon costs of different interventions, allowing decision makers to weigh pros and cons before moving forward.
Using data to identify the needs and behaviors of local communities can also help inform the next generation of interventions by allowing us to evaluate their merits and drawbacks. Before, the social impact of our decisions was only evident years, or sometimes decades, later. Moreover, being intangible and difficult to quantify, it was often difficult to explain in a way that could influence business decisions.
Now, our understanding of social value is becoming clearer. We are beginning to visualise and quantify the importance of a local park or a clean lake, in both human and ecological terms. For example, wetlands provide carbon sequestration, flood defenses and biodiversity gains, but they also boost local communities’ access to nature, which benefits their wellbeing. These insights, however, are not always immediately at hand, but must actively be procured, evaluated and implemented. Doing so requires the same early stage needs assessments and stakeholder engagement that a holistic approach enables.
In the end, our efforts to mitigate the climate change and biodiversity-loss crises have the same basic goal: to improve wellbeing for people and nature. Interventions aiding one at the expense of the other are not helpful in the long run. Similarly, solutions that reduce carbon or increase biodiversity, but damage local communities, are suboptimal and counterproductive. Not defense, resilience or restoration alone, but a single, integrated ecosystem of solutions that work for nature and society alike — that is the goal of a holistic approach.
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AtkinsRéalis (formally SNC Lavalin)
Founded in 1911, SNC-Lavalin is a fully integrated professional services and project management company with offices around the world. SNC-Lavalin connects people, technology and data to help shape and deliver world-leading concepts and projects, while offering comprehensive innovative solutions across the asset lifecycle. Their expertise is wide-ranging — consulting & advisory, intelligent networks & cybersecurity, design & engineering, procurement, project & construction management, operations & maintenance, decommissioning and sustaining capital – and delivered to clients in four strategic sectors: EDPM (engineering, design and project management), Infrastructure, nuclear and resources, supported by capital, people drive & results.
Read more: SNC-Lavalin (snclavalin.com)
About the Authors
Claire Wansbury is an expert ecologist with over 30 years’ experience and the co-editor of the ICE’s Manual of Blue Green Infrastructure. Claire’s numerous awards include winning CIEEM’s member of the year award for 2020, Society for the Environment’s Environmental Professional of the Year 2023, and EveryWoman in Transportation and Logistics’ Sustainability Champion 2023. Claire is one of the UK’s top experts on biodiversity net gain, including having co-authored national good practice principles. Her experience includes trailblazers in exploring how nature positive approaches such as biodiversity net gain can be applied to major infrastructure projects. She is also a leading expert in Natural Capital, working to build a shared understanding of the value of benefits our natural world provides to people, our society and our economy.
Shayne Paynter serves as the US Water Resources Technical Director for Atkins. He has served as expert witness and published numerous papers in areas that span coastal restoration, hydrogeology and groundwater modeling, water quality, infrastructure and stormwater management. The projects he most enjoys leading are multidisciplinary restoration and nature-based solutions that benefit multiple areas including flooding, climate change, coastal management, water quality, ecological and habitat uplift and environmental tourism. He holds a PhD in hydrologic statistics and is licensed as both a professional engineer and geologist in multiple states across the US.