To prevent irreversible harm to Earth’s life-support systems, humanity must emit less climate-warming greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, while also removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. This will require an urgent and large-scale transition to clean and renewable sources of energy. But even if the world stopped using fossil fuels completely, we would fail to avert a worst-case scenario if we did not also reverse the destruction of ecosystems such as forests that absorb and store carbon.

In other words: No matter what, if we don’t protect and restore nature, we will fail to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown.

 

The facts

 

Natural climate solutions are at the heart of Conservation International’s work. These are actions that conserve, restore or improve the use or management of ecosystems while maintaining their capacity to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere. Nature could get us at least 30 percent of the way to solving the climate crisis, while also providing a host of additional benefits — filtering fresh water, providing breathable air — that other approaches to climate change don’t offer.

Even better: Nature can do this today — for free.

 

 

 

Planetary goals

Where humanity needs to be by 2030

Leading scientists have identified the global need to avoid 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year by preventing the destruction of high-carbon ecosystems, and to remove 5 additional gigatons of CO2 per year through the restoration and sustainable management of the landscapes that serve as Earth’s natural “carbon sinks” by 2030.

 

 

 

What we are doing about it

 

 

Our strategy focuses on ensuring that natural ecosystems are worth more alive than dead. Deforestation rates have climbed in recent years — with short-term economic interests outweighing the long-term value of forests. Conservation International’s work aims to replace an extractive economy with a regenerative one through innovation, collaboration and by partnering with Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Together, we are:

  • Working with businesses and governments to minimize deforestation by addressing its largest drivers, particularly agricultural expansion.
  • Identifying and mapping high-carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, tropical peatlands, and old-growth tropical forests that, once lost, are extraordinarily difficult to replace.
  • Leveraging philanthropic funding by guiding public and private investments to initiatives such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a UN-backed approach to fight climate change by conserving forests.
  • Developing methods to increase the return on investment in tropical reforestation, making it more attractive for governments and private investors.
  • Supporting local and Indigenous communities to protect forests on their lands.
  • Mainstreaming and maximizing nature’s role for achieving climate goals in national and international climate actions.

 

Conservation International aims to:

Avoid 2+ gigatons of CO2 emissions through the avoided loss and conservation of high-carbon ecosystems such as peat, mangroves and old-growth forests. This will require preventing the loss of 3.3 million hectares of forest and protecting a much larger area.

 

Remove another 1+ gigaton of CO2 through restoration and sustainable management of natural ecosystems by 2025. That will require the restoration of 35 million hectares of land.

 

Secure 13 percent of the ecosystems that are storing the planet’s “irrecoverable carbon” — approximately 120 million hectares. These critical ecosystems contain a generation’s worth of carbon and are vulnerable to human activity.

 

Ensure all mangroves are included in countries’ climate action commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, and are protected and/or covered under a sustainable financing mechanism, with the aim of increasing mangrove forests worldwide by 20 percent by 2030.

 

Ensure tropical countries’ climate commitments reflect at least 50 percent of national mitigation potential for natural climate solutions. Help at least 30 countries enact policies that maximize natural climate solution potential.

 

Develop projects to capture 200 megatons of CO2, and increase available financing for natural climate solutions by US$ 10 billion, with a particular focus on high-emitting sectors.

 

 

Irrecoverable Carbon

To avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate breakdown, there are certain places we simply cannot afford to destroy. These ecosystems contain more than 260 billion tons of “irrecoverable carbon,” most of which is stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes. If released, these vast stores of living carbon would be impossible to recover by the middle of the century, which is when the world needs to reach net-zero emissions to avoid a climate disaster.

Conservational International scientists are leading a team of globally renowned experts to determine where these carbon stocks are, whether they are threatened by human activities and how quickly the stocks could be recovered if lost — creating a global map of irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems.

Informed by this pioneering research, Conservation International is undertaking an ambitious initiative to protect 120 million hectares (nearly 300 million acres) of ecosystems — an area larger than Colombia — containing high amounts of irrecoverable carbon by 2025. 

 

 

On the ground

Conservation International is hard at work

© Charlie Shoemaker
Chyulu Hills, Kenya
Conservation International is working to restore tens of thousands of hectares of grasslands in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, which will protect wildlife, support the livelihoods of the Maasai people and remove carbon from the atmosphere. By scaling this cost-effective approach, up to 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) of degraded shrub and grass lands could be restored to natural savanna, benefiting people and wildlife, and potentially sequestering billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year.
© Thomas Muller
Alto Mayo, Peru
Despite its protected status, Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — a swath of Amazonian rainforest twice the size of New York City — has seen some of the country’s highest rates of deforestation, fueled by agriculture and illegal logging. Conservation International is helping to provide local farmers with economic alternatives to deforestation, as well as benefits such as agricultural training, improved cookstoves and educational materials. These agreements have been partially funded through carbon credits, a critical tool for reducing deforestation and supporting sustainable development.
© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans
Bajo Madidi Municipal Conservation and Management Area, Bolivia
With support from Conservation International, the Bolivian municipality of Ixiamas established the 1.5-million-hectare (3.7-million-acre) Bajo Madidi Municipal Conservation and Management Area. A critical part of Conservation International’s climate strategy is centered around increasing the protection of carbon-rich forests in the Amazon — benefiting nature, climate and communities.
© Shutterstock
Cispatá, Colombia
Along the northern edge of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Conservation International is directly preventing the loss of 9,600 hectares (nearly 24,000 acres) of mangrove forests and actively restoring an additional 1,800 hectares (about 4,500 acres). Mangroves store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem on Earth while protecting coastal communities from the devastating impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and severe storms.

 

 

Related conservation news from the field

2020 in review: On climate, action fell short — but some efforts forged ahead

Dec 16, 2020, 08:47 AM by Kiley Price
This month, Conservation News is revisiting some of the most interesting and significant stories and issues we covered in 2020.

Nature saw its ups and downs in 2020, and Conservation News was there for it all. This month, we are revisiting some of the most interesting and significant stories we covered in the past year. 

A pandemic slowed the pace of life. It did not, however, slow climate breakdown. With only a decade left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, stalled action in 2020 provided a setback just when progress was needed most.  

This year, we covered how global climate action plateaued; how some governments, businesses and individuals forged ahead despite the pandemic; and what needs to happen next.  

Before COVID-19 appeared on anyone’s radar, world leaders and climate activists declared 2020 a “super year for nature," with several global climate conferences set to chart a course for slowing climate change and protecting biodiversity over the next decade. With all events on hold, our climate experts shared the steps that countries and individuals must take to ensure that postponing climate conferences doesn’t mean postponing action.

Read more here.

To slow climate breakdown, there are certain places on Earth that we simply cannot afford to destroy, according to new research by Conservation International scientists. We spoke to these scientists about where these places are — and what humanity can do to protect them. 

Read more here.

In a historic vote, the global civil aviation industry approved two forest-carbon programs from which airlines can buy carbon credits, which represent a reduction of climate-warming carbon emissions to compensate for emissions made somewhere else. According to experts, this decision could pave the way for airlines to help neutralize their climate footprint by protecting forests. 

Read more here.

“Mom, what’s climate change?” Teaching kids about such a complex and unsettling issue can be daunting for any parent. Never fear: Our climate expert has five tips to keep it simple — and optimistic. 

Read more here.

Humanity has cleared nearly half of the world’s forests. But what would happen if we let many of these lands grow back naturally — and how much climate-warming carbon would they absorb? To find the answers to these questions, Conservation International’s Bronson Griscom helped create a global map that pinpoints exactly which forest areas have the most potential to combat climate change over the next 30 years if they are simply left alone to function as nature intended.

Read more here.

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

Cover image: Chyulu Hills, Kenya (© Conservation International/Charlie Shoemaker)

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