We can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees — with nature’s help

© Heng Wang

You would be forgiven for feeling blue about the state of the climate today.

new report released today issues an ominous warning: The world is on track to blow past the limit at which runaway climate change will upend life as we know it. Even with commitments made to date under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the largest global accord on climate change, we will overshoot Earth’s “carbon budget” in a matter of a few years.

The report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, lays out a sobering case for keeping average global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius and represents the starkest alert yet of the imminent dangers facing humanity if we don’t get on top of the problem — and fast.

The problem: Most political climate change agreements use a 2-degree Celsius benchmark, even though it is widely understood that a rise of 2 degrees is itself an undesirable scenario. Not limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees would mean trillions of dollars in economic losses, heat extremes in all inhabited parts of the planet, die-off of large parts of the Amazon rainforest, and millions of climate refugees.

When a report like this comes out, we’re presented with choices: give in to despair and fatalism, or keep working. It’s easy to throw your hands up and assume that a ghastly climate future is sealed.

I choose to keep working — not only because we can’t afford not to, but because there is ample cause for hope.

A few weeks ago in San Francisco, two of the world’s most renowned climate experts delivered an extraordinary presentation laying out a way to avert disaster. In it, Conservation International Chief Scientist Johan Rockström and Distinguished Fellow Christiana Figueres outline essential steps to 2030 to galvanize action at the speed and scale now required to combat climate change.

Their message: We’re not doomed; in fact, the transformation we need to make is “a journey we’re already on.”

A key step on this journey is removing millions of tons’ worth of climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere, and many experts have touted an experimental method to do just that. Called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” — BECCS, for short — this method would remove carbon from the air and bury it underground.

The trouble is that this technology is in its infancy at best and that it could mean disaster for our forests and food system by competing for sufficient land area. Pinning our hopes on a technology that may never materialize at the scale we need it is foolhardy.

Fortunately, we do have an existing technology that has been perfected over millions of years. It’s called nature.

Simply protecting and restoring forests will get us about a third of the way to keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Trees are the original carbon-sequestration tech, and new research continues to open our eyes to their promise as allies in the effort to halt climate change:

A study published earlier this year found that it is possible to stay under 1.5 C without BECCS; among the methods suggested for doing so was improving agricultural productivity and freeing more land for reforestation.

Over the next century, already-existing reforestation efforts in the United States could help topsoil absorb an additional 2 billion tons of carbon — about 1 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Other research found that coastal mangrove forests store far more carbon than we thought, and that Brazil’s mangroves hold more carbon per acre than the Amazon rainforest itself.

So why aren’t we reforesting the world’s degraded lands — and why are we still losing our forests at record rates? In short, it comes down to political will. Until the importance of forests for our climate is valued more than the short-term profits from its destruction, not much is going to change.

Fortunately, signs of hope are taking root. We took a giant step last year with the announcement that Brazil would help restore 73 million trees in the Amazon River basin. This campaign was highly popular and showed that ambitious restoration of nature is possible.

Yes, climate change is already here. But we can avoid the worst that is yet to come. The solution is in our back yard.

Shyla Raghav is Conservation International’s climate change lead.

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