3 reasons for hope in a crucial year for climate action

© Conservation International/Charlie Shoemaker

If 2019 was the year that the world finally took note of climate impacts sweeping the globe, 2020 will be critical for taking action to prevent them from getting worse.

With about 10 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, researchers are racing to address climate breakdown on multiple fronts, testing models and devising plans to inform countries, communities and companies on how they can use science, finance and policy to protect nature — and forestall climate disaster.

Here are three areas where Conservation International experts are focusing their efforts in a crucial year for the climate.

1. We need to restore what has been lost

The only way to avoid the worst climate scenarios, scientists contend, is by cutting carbon emissions while removing excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Luckily, there’s a “hack” for both: restoring the world’s tropical forests.

“Once we’ve stopped emissions, our best bet at reversing climate breakdown is to remove carbon from the atmosphere by restoring damaged ecosystems and forests,” said Nikola Alexandre, a forest restoration expert at Conservation International.

“Restoration and reforestation takes decades, so if we don’t get it right now, we’ll have missed our shot.”

But with more than 75 percent of the Earth’s land areas identified as substantially degraded, where is the best place to start?

Conservation International scientists are currently developing a global map of the areas that have the highest restoration potential at the lowest cost to help governments prioritize their efforts to curb emissions. The science has already revealed one of those critical ecosystems: the Amazon.

The Amazon absorbs more than 2 billion tons of carbon emissions per year, which is 5 percent of the annual emissions released into the atmosphere across the entire planet. In 2020, Conservation International will continue to support a large-scale restoration project of more than 30,000 hectares (74,131 acres) of Brazilian Amazon, collaborating with indigenous peoples, local NGOs and state governments to protect the world’s biggest rainforest.

Another one of the most vital, but perhaps lesser known, ecosystems in the fight to stop climate breakdown is the African savanna. In Kenya, the savanna is a powerhouse when it comes to absorbing carbon, though these lands are constantly being degraded and destroyed by encroaching farmlands, charcoal burning and forest fires. In partnership with Apple, Conservation International will continue to work with Maasai pastoralists in 2020 to restore and protect the savannah through an ongoing conservation project in Chyulu Hills, a sprawling landscape between Kenya’s Tsavo and Amboseli national parks.

It’s a great start, but it will require rapid, widespread restoration efforts across the globe to make a dent in the climate crisis.

“The only way we’ll be able to restore our damaged ecosystems fast enough to make a difference is by using 2020 to increase funding for restoration projects and developing new policies to protect nature,” said Alexandre.

“This means we have to take 2020 to bring together the best social and natural science to understand where and how to restore, forge new partnerships, and support the right people to lead the work. It’s a huge task, but it’s one that gives us a chance at proactively shaping the future we need.”

2. A market for living carbon could be key

Since the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015, 197 countries have pledged their commitments to reduce carbon emissions and avoid the most severe impacts of climate breakdown before it’s too late.

The Paris Agreement officially goes into force in 2020 — which means these countries must find ways to make their emissions reductions goals a reality.

“2020 is the year when political, investment and business commitments must match the science,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president for climate. “The decisions that we make today will have far-reaching consequences for the scale and pace at which climate change accelerates."

Many climate experts agree that one of the most effective ways for countries to reach their targets is by establishing a carbon market — which would enable countries to buy emissions reductions from other countries or sectors that have already made extra cuts to their own carbon emissions.

Carbon markets are already helping some governments reach their climate goals, including California, the world’s fifth-largest economy. And in South America, Colombia’s carbon tax and market have already generated more than US$ 250 million, which is helping to fund the country’s protected areas, and forest restoration and coastal erosion work.

“We need incentives and policies to channel funds to the places that need it the most,” explained Raghav. “Putting a price on carbon and investing in nature’s power as a climate solution are a few of the best ways to do this.”

In 2020, Conservation International will be working with governments and businesses to help them access carbon market projects by emphasizing the role of nature in stopping climate change.

“We need to stop climate breakdown from becoming so severe that our planet will become uninhabitable or that our Amazon will become a savanna or that coastal cities will become submerged,” said Raghav. “We have a long road ahead of us, but I am hopeful.”

3. Coming soon: A roadmap for using nature as a climate solution

In a landmark study published in 2017, a group of researchers led by Bronson Griscom, who researches natural climate solutions at Conservation International, discovered that nature can deliver at least 30 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 to prevent climate catastrophe.

Now these experts are developing a roadmap to help countries and businesses identify how to actually use nature as a climate solution.

“The past decade has been about getting the information and knowledge to prepare and inspire ourselves for major action — 2020 is all about actually acting,” Griscom said. “This roadmap will show countries how to use natural climate solutions to reach their emissions reductions targets. This is not a pipe dream; there are already shining examples of countries that are already delivering on their promises to protect nature.”

One of the countries that is leading the pack is Costa Rica. By protecting its forests and mangroves instead of destroying them, the country is at the forefront of the global effort to end the climate crisis.

In the past 25 years, Costa Rica has tripled its GDP while doubling its forest cover; it has also pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. To do this, the Costa Rican government is engaging with farmers and landowners in the protection and restoration of their forests in exchange for payment for the “ecosystem services” — such as carbon storage, water supply and wildlife — that the forests provide.

To follow Costa Rica’s example, Conservation International will be working with indigenous and tribal communities in Suriname to introduce climate-smart forestry practices to the community’s timber industry. These practices will enable carbon financing, which will support these forest communities to both fully protect lands and implement reduced- impact logging for climate systems that will cut the emissions released during logging in half, while producing the same amount of wood.

While national and community efforts are critical to addressing the climate crisis, businesses must also act, Griscom says — and they must start now.

“The private sector doesn’t have to wait for policy changes like country governments,” Griscom said. “This roadmap will show corporations where to invest in natural climate solutions, so they can develop more climate-smart business models while improving jobs and rural livelihoods.”

Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Muli and Matasha, Maasai guides who works with the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, make their way up to the cloud forest atop of the Chyulu Hills with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. (© Conservation International/Charlie Shoemaker)

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