What on Earth are 'natural climate solutions'?

© Shawn Heinrichs

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation News breaks it down in an occasional series we’re calling “What on Earth?” 

In this installment, we explore "natural climate solutions (NCS)," a cost-effective, low-tech approach to stopping climate breakdown. 

So what are ‘natural climate solutions’?

Nature is good for our climate: By absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere, forests and other high-carbon ecosystems can help to forestall climate change. So any action that conserves, restores or improves the use or management of these ecosystems — while, and this is important, increasing carbon storage and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions — can be considered a “natural” climate solution.  

And we need them because …

The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that the climate is in crisis and we’ve got about 10 years to drastically cut our carbon emissions, or humanity will suffer devastating consequences.

Hotter summers? 

Yes. Also: sea-level rise that will wipe out some of the planet’s major coastal cities, displacing tens of millions of people. “Once-in-a-century” storms that occur several times a year. Droughts. Disease. Famine. And so on.

I’ve read that scientists are developing a giant device that can suck the carbon out of the air and store it or turn it into something useful. Is this like that?

You just described a tree, so yes. This is actually that.  

It's true that scientists are working on devices that replicate this amazing feat — but none are as cost-effective as a tree. Furthermore, no artificial machines that are even in the design stage will also clean our air, clean our water, provide habitat for wildlife and all the other useful features of trees.

So does natural climate solutions mean simply planting trees?

Trees are a big part — about 70 percent of what we mean when we say, “natural climate solutions.” But it goes way beyond planting. Let’s bring in an expert to explain.

“When we talk about natural climate solutions, we’re primarily focused on three main things,” says Bronson Griscom, who leads Conservation International’s work on natural climate solutions and pioneered the science that put natural climate solutions on the map. “Those are: protecting the critical places we need for our climate; restoring and expanding the footprint of natural ecosystems, so they can do what they do best; and improving how we manage our working lands.”

Still not sure where the trees fit in. 

When we describe those critical ecosystems — the ones that store carbon and turn it into things we can use, like wood — we’re mostly talking about forests. As Griscom puts it: “The fundamental notion behind natural climate solutions is ‘don’t cut the trees down and let the fields we don’t need grow back into forests.’” 

So doing these three things — protecting, restoring, managing — will make a big dent in the climate crisis?

Yes. Essentially, to stop climate breakdown, we need to do two things: emit less carbon and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. In 2017, a team of scientists led by Griscom found that natural climate solutions could get us at least 30 percent of the way there, while also providing a whole host of additional benefits that other approaches to climate change don’t offer.

Other benefits?

Everything that nature does: filtering fresh water, providing a home for wildlife, providing breathable air, and so on. The list is pretty extensive, and nature does it all for free.

Speaking of which: Surely natural climate solutions come at some cost?

Well, yes and no. Some forms of natural climate solutions can actually save money, like better forestry and farming practices that produce more wood and food while storing more carbon. Other forms of NCS will cost some money, like removing cattle from fields and letting forests grow back. But even those that cost money up-front will save us money in the long-term — by avoiding higher costs of climate change. 

So natural climate solutions are cost-effective and they already exist.

Yes, indeed.

And we’ve got a decade to stop the worst consequences of climate breakdown.

Correct.

What am I missing here — why isn’t every single country using natural climate solutions already?

There’s no simple answer, but there are reasons. Let’s have Griscom explain:

“The first barrier to widespread adoption of natural climate solutions is a lack of financing,” he says. “Less than 3 percent of existing financing for climate mitigation goes to nature — meaning these solutions don’t even get funding in the existing suite of solutions that we are investing in.

“Second: Nature has a p.r. problem. In the discourse of our society, nature is perceived as a victim of climate change rather than a powerful solution. And it is perceived as a warm, philanthropic thing you ‘give back to’ — not the cutting-edge technology that it actually is. We need to help people — leaders — understand that.” 

Got it: More funding, better branding. Anything else?

“Something we have to consider when we look at natural climate solutions is land-use issues, which are really complicated,” Griscom says. “A scientist in a lab, an inventor at a company — no one is coming up with some cool machine to solve land-use issues. Land is where so many human, cultural, social, food and economic things come together. It’s about community, history, tradition, rights.

“But we don’t have a choice. Our hand has been forced. We have to figure out how to be better stewards of our lands, and to learn from those who are — and have been — phenomenal stewards of the land for generations.”

If there was adequate funding, what would natural climate solutions look like in action?

We’ve already got some pretty remarkable examples — which is how we know just how effective natural climate solutions are.

Take Costa Rica: By protecting its forests and mangroves instead of destroying them, the country is at the forefront of the global effort to slow climate change. 

In the last 25 years, the Costa Rica has tripled its GDP while doubling the size of its forests; it has also pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. A seminal piece of this effort is the direct engagement with farmers and landowners in the protection and restoration of their forests, in exchange for payment for the carbon, water and biodiversity services their land provides.

Sounds like some countries are already on board. How do we get the rest?

Next week, world leaders are gathering at the UN climate conference. While no major decisions aren’t expected to come out of this, the two-week event is seen as an opportunity to prepare for 2020, the “make or break it” year for stopping climate breakdown, when the global community has to get serious about emissions reductions and put their money — and their policies — where their mouth is.

That’s where natural climate solutions come in. 

“The good news,” Griscom says, “is solving one problem — climate change — with natural climate solutions actually solves so many others — biodiversity, soil conservation, drinking water, land stewardship.” 

Bronson Griscom is the senior director of natural climate solutions at Conservation International. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Trees in the forest of Mont Panié, New Caledonia. (© Shawn Heinrichs)