A clean energy transition is underway to curb planet-heating emissions, with investments in renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficiency expected to top $1.4 trillion this year.
The shift — though unevenly distributed across countries — signals real progress. But there is another solution that receives far less attention, not to mention funding: Nature. We cannot stop a climate crisis without it.
Even if the world cut fossil fuel emissions immediately, humanity would fail to avert a disastrous climate scenario if we do not also reverse the destruction of forests, peatlands and other ecosystems that are powerful carbon sponges.
Today, 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 role in tackling global warming. It finds that to avoid catastrophic climate change, the land sector — including agriculture and forestry — must reach net zero emissions by 2030, and it offers guidance to get there.
“Climate change is one of the biggest threats humanity has ever faced, and nature could be our greatest ally,” said Bronson Griscom, who leads Conservation International’s science on natural climate solutions. “Making the most of nature’s potential to avert a climate crisis really boils down to three things: protecting, managing and restoring Earth’s ecosystems.”
To understand how nature can help avert climate breakdown — and what humanity must do next — Conservation News spoke with Griscom and fellow Conservation International scientists Michael Wolosin and Starry Sprenkle-Hyppolite, all of whom contributed to the roadmap.
Approximately 15 percent of Earth’s lands are protected — either as national parks, community conservation areas, Indigenous land designations or other types of conservation methods.
That’s a good start, but the most immediate way to amplify natural climate solutions is by expanding protections in regions that hold vast stores of climate-warming carbon, such as mangroves, marshlands and old-growth forests and that are at high risk of degradation, according to the new roadmap.
Strategies to protect these high-carbon ecosystems include establishing a network of new national and regional protected areas, creating local and community parks, and improving management of existing protected areas by developing climate resilience plans.
- Study: Protect these places — or face climate doom
- These ecosystems could determine our climate future: study
Countries must advance trade laws to halt illegal deforestation and ban commodities produced on illegally deforested land. But protecting forests isn’t just the job of governments.
“Businesses — particularly in the agricultural sector — must reduce or eliminate deforestation in their supply chains,” said Michael Wolosin, a lead researcher on the roadmap. “That means acting on no-deforestation commitments by transparently reporting deforestation and integrating no-deforestation objectives into their purchasing and trading decisions.”
Fortunately, many companies are starting to realize that protecting nature is good business. Last year, more than 30 financial institutions pledged to eliminate deforestation driven by agriculture from their portfolios and increase investments in nature-based solutions by 2025. Conservation International and other partners will support these financial institutions as they engage with companies in shifting away from deforestation in their supply chains.
“With trillions in assets, financial institutions can direct capital toward incentives that protect — rather than destroy — nature,” Wolosin said. “They are critical to changing the way Earth’s ecosystems are valued.”
Each year, large swaths of tropical forests are destroyed to make room for palm oil, cattle, soy and other commodities. Agricultural expansion is the largest driver of deforestation. When emissions from fertilizers and farm animals are factored in, food systems emit more than a quarter of all greenhouse gases from human activity.
“Changing the food we eat and how we grow it is critical to limiting global warming,” said Sprenkle-Hyppolite. “And everyone can play a role, from farmers to manufacturers to consumers.”
The main culprit of food-fueled emissions is meat. Globally, about a third of cropland is used to grow food for animals rather than for people. Grazing cattle, for example, requires large tracts of land, which fuels deforestation. In addition, the cattle themselves produce massive amounts of methane, which is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
To help address these issues, the report recommends a variety of “climate-smart” techniques, including adding trees along the edges of croplands and pastures to provide carbon-storing benefits, practicing rotational grazing to minimize soil erosion, and seeding pastures with legumes to improve soil fertility and carbon absorption.
These practices are already seeing promising results in Africa, where Conservation International’s Herding 4 Health program is helping farmers across six countries — and more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland — implement climate-smart farming techniques to restore the nature that they depend on.
- FURTHER READING: In South Africa, the future of sustainable ranching looks bright
Through the program, rural communities minimize overgrazing and remove invasive vegetation that hampers the growth of grass and availability of water. In return, they receive support to improve the health of their livestock and access livestock markets. Critically, the project prioritizes the needs of nature-dependent farmers who stand to lose the most if grasslands continue to deteriorate.
“These solutions aren’t reliant on hypothetical technologies,” Sprenkle-Hyppolite said. “In most cases, it’s about implementing centuries-old practices, many of which incorporate Indigenous knowledge to improve growing conditions, soil fertility and resilience to heat waves and drought.”
Other agricultural improvements outlined in the roadmap include cover-cropping and reduced tillage, which regulates soil moisture and temperature, limits nutrient runoff and improves soil fertility — while reducing a farm’s carbon footprint.
Restoring degraded ecosystems could remove 400 gigatons of CO2 — equivalent to emissions released by more than 86 million cars each year — by 2100.
“Stopping deforestation is critical but it won’t be enough — we must also restore degraded lands and rewild damaged ecosystems so we can reap their carbon-storing benefits for decades to come,” Griscom said.
Conservation International works with governments to develop policies that prioritize assisted natural regeneration, which is the most cost-effective restoration method for mitigating climate change. This approach allows trees to regrow by eliminating barriers and threats from human activity.
“It is a relatively low-cost approach to restoration that can be rapidly scaled by simply protecting areas in which forests are regenerating,” Griscom said.
Along with farmers, some of the most effective partners for restoring nature are those who depend on it the most: Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous-managed lands show less species decline and pollution, and more well-managed natural resources. For example, in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest the Indigenous peoples of the Xingu region are restoring their forests by implementing a traditional farming technique called muvuca. This involves sowing a large and varied mix of seeds that yield native plants, such as cashew and açaí, while restoring the soil.
With support from Conservation International, the Xingu peoples helped plant seeds to yield more than 1.8 million trees — with a range of positive impacts, from better water quality to increased agricultural production.
“Protection is still a top priority, but it must be paired with other strategies,” said Griscom. “For people in industrialized countries, that means healthier diets. For farmers and foresters that means adopting smarter practices, with better financial support. And for Indigenous peoples, it means justice — more rights and resources. These efforts all have one thing in common: preparing for a warmer planet by transforming our relationship with nature.”