Jhe climate is changing, and it is changing rapidly. Our planet is 1.2°C (2.2°F) warmer today than it was in 1908, when Henry Ford launched the world’s first consumer automobile. Without a dramatic course correction, there is a 50% chance that global warming will exceed 1.5°C (2.7°F) in the next five years. If we reach that point, 90% of coral reefs could die, extreme heat waves will become nine times more frequent, and sea levels will rise several feet. Historically, the conversation around climate solutions has focused on decarbonization, i.e. reducing the use of fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy. Although this is essential, it is not sufficient. Even if we switch to 100% clean energy, temperatures will continue to rise unless we also address our unsustainable relationship with nature.
Earth’s forests, grasslands and swamps are natural climate regulators, thanks to the silent miracle of photosynthesis. But when we degrade these lands – through deforestation, overgrazing and overexploitation – we release the carbon stored in these ecosystems, while reducing their ability to store future emissions. Already, we have converted 50% of all nature into farmland, cities and roads. This is deeply concerning, as untouched nature absorbs 25% of our carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels – this number is decreasing every year as nature degrades further. Unsustainable land use and agriculture are the source of around a quarter of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Human-managed lands could be a powerful tool to mitigate the climate crisis; instead, they speed it up.
This month, scientists from Conservation International and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions, a first-of-its-kind blueprint for maximizing nature’s climate-stabilizing potential. In this report, we propose a new guiding principle known as Nature’s Carbon Law: To limit global warming and keep 1.50C in sight, we must achieve net zero emissions from the land sector by 2030, and then reach 10 billion tons of negative by 2050. This is undoubtedly an ambitious goal, but we have a realistic plan to achieve it. Our plan does not involve unproven technologies or sci-fi geoengineering projects. Instead, it relies on a toolkit of proven conservation measures, many of which date back centuries and can be quickly expanded.
First, protect carbon-rich ecosystems that remain intact, prioritizing “unrecoverable” places that cannot grow back, for example, the Amazon rainforest and the Congo Basin peatlands, in our lifetime.
Second, restore high-carbon ecosystems that have already been lost, especially coastal mangrove forests, peatlands and rainforests.
Third, we need to fix the way we manage working land: farmland, woodlot and pasture. Around 80% of land-based emission reductions depend on transforming the global food system, the biggest driver of deforestation and one of the main drivers of emissions. This transformation must be both top-down and bottom-up – almost everyone has a role to play. Big business needs to re-examine its supply chains, while financial institutions shift capital from businesses that degrade and destroy to those that regenerate and restore. At the same time, governments must use economic incentives to reward good behavior and discourage bad; this includes redirecting subsidies away from heavy industry, investing in climate-smart agriculture and grazing, and adopting import restrictions on unsustainable commodities.
At the local level, small changes made by landowners and managers can have huge global effects. Farmers, for example, can do their part and improve their livelihoods at the same time by incorporating trees into cropland, using fertilizers more efficiently and adopting low-tillage soil management. If just 20% of the world’s forests, farms and pastures were to switch to greener practices, the climate impact would be equivalent to taking 1.7 billion automobiles off the road. Notably, many climate-smart agricultural practices do not reduce crop yields – in many cases they can bolster production by increasing resistance to heat waves and drought.
If the three components of this plan – protection, management and restoration – are taken seriously, they will not only help fight climate change; they will also protect wildlife, reduce the spread of disease, promote food and water security and develop rural economies. This is the true potential of bold climate action: a more prosperous, more equitable and more abundant world.
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