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The year ahead: Climate change is here. Nature can help

© Trond Larsen

For millions of people around the world who are learning to survive in the face of droughts, floods and more frequent storms, climate change is not a future problem — it’s here now. Nature can be a powerful ally in adapting to these impacts, but its contributions are often underappreciated.

As we look ahead to the conservation issues shaping 2023, Conservation News sat down with Conservation International’s climate lead Emily Nyrop and scientist Dave Hole to discuss how to maximize nature’s role as a climate solution. 

What’s on your radar in 2023?

Dave Hole: Going into this year, and beyond, we will increase our focus on climate adaptation. We know that avoiding the worst impacts of climate change means limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet we’re already experiencing a roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) average global temperature rise, and that will only continue to increase given the world’s limited progress on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. So, we need to find ways to reduce our vulnerability to the impacts we’re already experiencing from a rapidly warming planet — and try to prepare for the increasing risks that are inevitable in the future. 

In addition, many of the countries and communities that are least responsible for climate change are facing the greatest threats because they rely so heavily on nature. Finding ways to help them adapt to new climate realities is not only a practical need, it’s also a climate justice issue — a moral responsibility. We’re working to figure out how we can better harness nature to help fight climate change and adapt to the changes that are already here.

Further reading: What on Earth is ‘climate adaptation?’

With only a few years to avert a climate crisis, how can nature help? 

Emily Nyrop: We’re in a race to avoid irreversible impacts from climate change — but we also know what we need to do to get there. Last year, Conservation International released the Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions, which lays out a path for maximizing nature’s role in tackling global warming. Land use is the largest cause of ecosystem loss and is responsible for nearly one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve our climate goals, the world must reach net-zero emissions from land — including agriculture and forestry — by 2030 and ensure managed lands absorb 10 gigatons of carbon each year by 2050. This year, we’re working to start to bring the roadmap to life through close partnerships with governments, businesses, financial institutions and local communities that scale up action and improve nature’s ability to store carbon. 

Do you have an example?

EN: Many of the actions we recommend incorporate centuries-old practices: Improving the health of our soils with regenerative practices like reduced-tillage farming, avoiding the over-use of fertilizer to reduce runoff that pollutes waterways and implementing climate-smart grazing practices like rotating animals across fields. We’ll be working closely with our field programs and partners around the world to start putting these recommendations into action and to expand and replicate our effective programs. It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach because every country has unique ecosystems and culture.

DH: One example of an effective program is Herding 4 Health, which helps herders implement climate-smart land management techniques, such as rotational grazing, to restore the nature that they depend on. Currently, the program is in six countries across Africa and protects more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland. There is significant potential to expand into many more countries and grow into a strong investment opportunity that brings benefits for herders’ livelihoods, carbon storage and rangeland ecosystems.

What makes you hopeful for 2023?

EN: Compared to where we were even a few years ago, it feels like the urgency of climate change is being better understood. Not everyone sees it through the lens that we do, but the collective consciousness around the need to act is growing. 

DH: We also have a better understanding of how efforts to address, and adapt to, climate change can complement each other. For example, we know that when we work with a local community to protect a forest and conserve its vital carbon stores, that is also going to have benefits for biodiversity and help that community adapt to future risks like floods. It’s all connected. We have the knowledge to get to a better place — we just have to make the right choices. 

Further reading: 

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.