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 Week: The climate solution in your cup
A UN report last year found that humanity must overhaul the global food system to curb deforestation and stop climate breakdown.
This year, at New York Climate Week, one conservationist offered a climate-friendly solution to producing one of the world’s favorite crops: coffee.
Joining environmental scientists, government leaders and economists at a virtual panel to explore the impact of food on the climate, Conservation International’s coffee expert Bambi Semroc explained why coffee contributes so much more to people than just a morning boost.
“Coffee is usually grown in and around important areas for conservation,” she said. “In protecting those forests, it helps promote a stable climate for our health and wellness.”
Many sustainable coffee farmers grow their crops under a canopy of taller trees — known as “shade trees” — which help regulate the coffee plant’s temperature and promote growth, while providing habitats for native biodiversity and absorbing carbon emissions. Recent analysis from Conservation international experts found that if coffee production increases on existing lands rather than expanding deeper into forests, it could secure over 1.5 gigatons of carbon — equivalent to taking more than 300 million cars off the road for a year — through avoided emissions and carbon storage.
- READ MORE: What on Earth is ‘sustainable’ coffee?
According to Semroc, stemming deforestation from coffee production is not only good for the climate, it is critical for human well-being.
“When coffee farming is done sustainably, it actually invests in nature conservation and it helps protect us from future pandemics,” she said.
In fact, a recent study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that decreasing deforestation worldwide could reduce the risk of forest loss-related disease spillover by as much as 40 percent in high-risk areas.
However, coffee production is expected to triple by 2050 to meet growing market demands, which could drive the destruction of more than 30 million hectares (more than 74 million acres) forests to make room for coffee crops. In the face of a climate and public health crisis, avoiding this amount of deforestation by increasing coffee production on existing farms is more important than ever, Semroc explained.
“We cannot just think about coffee as a victim of climate change … but really trying to think about how we can leverage the knowledge, insight and stewardship that coffee farmers are doing every day to benefit our climate,” she said. “We have to double-down on sustainable coffee production on our existing lands, we need to improve shade systems and integrate other agroforestry practices.”
To do this, Conservation International launched the Sustainable Coffee Challenge — an initiative working to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural product. With more than 155 partners — including Starbucks, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ — the Sustainable Coffee Challenge has been collaborating with members of the coffee sector since 2015 to improve labor practices, increase sustainable sourcing and ensure that coffee farms have a positive impact on the climate.
“We know we need to invest in agricultural commodities that can really be part of the [climate change] solution,” Semroc said. “We also know that coffee can be part of that success story.”
Other coverage from Climate Week:
At Walmart’s Sustainability Milestone Summit, business leaders and conservationists shared how they are protecting nature — and why that is so important for the global economy. “Every dollar spent to protect nature gives back five in return,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan explained.
For centuries, social injustices against Indigenous peoples have hindered their ability to conserve the nature they depend on. A group of Indigenous leaders — including climate activist and Conservation International Board Member Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim — explains how to change that.
Bambi Semroc is the vice president of the Center for Sustainable Lands and Seas at Conservation International. 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: Tapajós National Forest, Pará, Brazil (© Flavio Forner)
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