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Nature’s underestimated potential to mitigate climate change

15 Nov 2017
Deploy natural climate solutions in battle to fortify landscape ecosystems

Bronson Griscom is director of Forest Carbon Science at The Nature Conservancy. Any views expressed are his own. 

The last two years have seen significant global advancement on climate action, with hundreds of global businesses and national and sub-national leaders building on the momentum of the Paris Agreement to initiate new climate pledges, initiatives and funding programs. But a gap still exists between promised action and realized climate progress, leaving many solutions available to us now underutilized—especially in the land sector, which currently accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, new research shows that stewardship of the land can play a significant role in keeping global temperature increases under 2 degrees Celsius. The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to bring together more than two-dozen expert scientists specializing in conservation and climate modeling, and economists from a variety of global institutions to explore this issue. They found that nature’s ability to mitigate climate change is about 30 percent higher than previously projected.These results are described in “Natural climate solutions,” published in Proceedings of the National Academies of the Sciences.

“Natural climate solutions” refer to conservation, restoration and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes across the globe. This study distills the mitigation potential of natural climate solutions into 20 pathways for action across different biomes and land stewardship practices, offering 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 mitigation per year.

Additionally, the study’s economic analyses show that half of these natural climate solutions (11.3 billion tons CO2e) offer cost-effective mitigation opportunities, lower than the future overall impact of climate change, which is projected to cost society more than $100 per ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. Natural climate solutions are also generally more cost effective than “negative emissions technologies” for removing carbon from the atmosphere, which are not yet mature.

With concerted global action between now and 2030, better land stewardship offers 37 percent of the cost-effective solution for keeping global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius or below—the same as if the world today put a complete stop on the burning of oil. That said, aggressive measures to reduce oil and other fossil fuel emissions are also necessary, alongside natural climate solutions. The most important contribution of natural climate solutions is now through 2040, offering a bridge strategy to development of affordable carbon removal technologies.

Right now, variations of land-based climate solutions appear in more than 75 percent of individual country commitments to the Paris Agreement—and yet renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean transport together receive nearly 30 times the amount of public mitigation investment that land-based solutions receive. Of the limited funding for natural climate solutions, much focuses on tropical forest protection in developing countries—a major climate mitigation opportunity that does need more attention. But this study shows that terrestrial mitigation opportunities are not limited to tropical forests. A variety of natural climate solutions—including those in grassland, agricultural and wetland ecosystems—are relevant across the globe and can have a large impact on many countries’ emissions. Furthermore, these solutions bring added social and environmental benefits, such as cleaner air and water, sustainable food production and increased habitat.

Climate change is the largest and most complex environmental crisis we have ever confronted. Mobilizing natural climate solutions doesn’t mean that we should cut back on the research and development of renewables, electric cars or energy efficiency methods. Nor is action on natural climate solutions a substitute for ceasing to burn fossil fuels. Rather, they are a required complement to the transformation of our energy sector if we are to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

While looking forward, we can’t lose sight of one of the most important solutions—the earth beneath our feet, and the whispering leaves above our heads.

Learn more about natural climate solutions: explore our feature and case studies, and access the full report at nature.org/ncs.

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