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.
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.
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.
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
Related conservation news from the field
Climate summit sets high ambitions — now action must follow
Reestablishing itself as a leader in the fight against climate change, the United States — one of the world’s top emitters — made a bold pledge last week to roughly halve its greenhouse gas emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
Several other countries committed to similarly ambitious targets while convening virtually at the first Leaders Summit on Climate led by the Biden Administration. However, the summit left some experts wondering: Will ambitions turn into climate action — and is it enough?
Conservation News spoke to Conservation International climate policy expert Maggie Comstock to discuss highlights from the summit, the next steps needed for countries to meet new climate goals and what could happen if they fail.
Question: What are the main takeaways from the climate summit?
Answer: Along with the United States’ ambitious pledge to halve its emissions, several other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and the island nation of Seychelles, announced new — albeit more modest — climate targets.
Importantly, some leaders’ commitments went beyond reducing emissions within their own countries. For example, the United States pledged to double climate finance to US$ 5.7 billion by 2024 to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It will also triple the financing available to help these countries adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate breakdown.
Increased public financing could go a long way toward helping low-income countries grow more sustainably. If the global community is going to ask countries not to use coal or avoid deforestation for agricultural expansion, there need to be alternatives for sustainable development — and the financing to support them.
An initiative that emerged out of the summit could help countries find and fund these sustainable alternatives by focusing on one of humanity’s greatest allies to fight climate change: nature. Several countries including the U.S., United Kingdom and Norway launched the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition — which will pay tropical nations to reduce deforestation, avoiding emissions in the process. This initiative signals a clear demand for emissions reductions achieved by protecting forests. It builds on an existing framework known as REDD+, which provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact with the aim of avoiding emissions and capturing carbon.
- As pandemic pounded Peru, one region thrived on coffee, carbon
- When COVID flattened tourism, carbon credits kept these African hills ‘green’
Q: How can countries make good on these new climate commitments?
A: Committing to more ambitious climate goals is a great first step, but countries are going to need to make transformational changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — which scientists agree is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe.
In the case of the United States, the Biden administration outlined several concrete steps to slash emissions, including massive new investments in clean energy, electric vehicles and natural climate solutions such as reforestation and the restoration of mangroves. By setting a high bar, the administration really puts a challenge out there for others to race to the top.
While other countries’ commitments were encouraging, many were not entirely clear on how they’ll reach their goals. Governments must find a way to transform their ambition into tangible actions such as shifting to renewable energy, investing in sustainable farming and decreasing deforestation. Luckily, countries have another opportunity to explicitly outline their climate goals, and the roadmaps to reach them, in the lead up to the international climate negotiations planned for Glasgow this November.
Q: Many countries’ economies are reeling in the wake of the pandemic. Why should they invest in sustainability while recovering?
A: We have less than a decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, which could threaten human well-being and the global economy. Shifting to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is not only good for the planet, it has the potential to create millions of green jobs at a time when unemployment rates are surging around the world.
Researchers recently analyzed stimulus plans created during or following the 2008 financial crisis and found that green policies, such as those that support renewable energy and energy efficiency, brought greater immediate economic benefits and higher long-term savings compared with traditional stimulus packages.
Finally, let’s not forget: Protecting nature is both a climate solution and a way to prevent future pandemics. In 2020, a landmark study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that reducing deforestation, restricting the global wildlife trade and monitoring the emergence of new diseases could decrease the risk of future pandemics by 27 percent or more — at a fraction of the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date. Since it was published, the paper has been used to inform pandemic prevention and recovery initiatives for the U.S. Congress, the Biden administration and European policymakers.
Cover image: Aleutian Islands, Alaska (© Chris Burkard)
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