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
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Looking ahead: After lost year, urgency rises for climate, nature policy
It was supposed to be a “super year for nature.”
In 2019, world leaders and environmentalists billed 2020 as the year that major global talks would chart an ambitious new course for protecting the climate, the oceans and biodiversity.
That, of course, never came to be. Like everything else, international negotiations on climate and nature were put on hold to stem the spread of coronavirus.
This year, humanity must make up for lost time, two Conservation International experts say.
With world leaders once again set to convene at a series of environmental negotiations later this year, Conservation International climate policy expert Lina Barrera and climate scientist Dave Hole spoke to Conservation News about the year ahead, and what has to happen.
Question: How can nature help countries meet their climate goals?
Dave Hole (DH): Nature underpins everything we depend on, including a stable climate. Forests, grasslands and wetlands have the extraordinary ability to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere. Any action that conserves, restores or uses these ecosystems more sustainably can be considered a “natural” climate solution. And research shows that these natural climate solutions can provide at least 30 percent of the emissions reductions necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. That’s massive, especially when you consider all the other benefits these ecosystems provide for people, such as food, water and clean air.
Lina Barrera (LB): This year, countries are submitting new climate goals under the Paris Agreement. It’s critical for countries to integrate natural climate solutions, like stopping deforestation or restoring mangroves and coastal areas, into their updated goals. This will help ensure that natural climate solutions are prioritized when it comes to making policy decisions. Conservation International has developed a series of guides to help countries do this, with recommendations that are tailored to different social, political and economic contexts.
Q: Doesn’t it cost a lot of money to protect nature?
DH: Yes, it does cost money to protect nature — but, in the long run, it will cost us way more if we destroy it. The wealth of a nation is greater than just what its people or businesses can produce; it’s also about a country’s “natural capital” — the plants, animals and ecosystems that provide value through a variety of benefits and services. This includes everything from the life-saving role mangroves play in buffering coastal communities against storms, to the insects and other animals which pollinate one-third of our food supply, contributing billions of dollars to the global economy each year.
If countries are not incorporating natural capital into their decision-making, they may be missing risks and opportunities to grow. The good news is many countries are beginning to wake up to the vital contributions nature makes to their economies and are finding ways to actively include these contributions in their national accounting systems – a process called “natural capital accounting.”
For example, Conservation International is currently working with the government of Liberia and NASA to use satellite imagery to better assess the value of that country’s ecosystems — with the goal of informing its national policies. These types of efforts can help reshape the way countries approach development — moving from exploiting nature to conserving and sustainably managing it. We are also working to create the first-ever map that identifies the places around the world where people depend on nature the most to help prioritize strategies for how to conserve it.
LB: This map will help inform leaders when they meet later this year — COVID-permitting — to negotiate new goals to protect Earth’s biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is the planet’s biodiversity — from tiny organisms in fertile soil to healthy trees — that gives nature its ability to effectively store carbon and slow climate change. However, Earth’s biodiversity is currently declining at an unprecedented rate. When biodiversity is lost or an ecosystem is degraded, nature can no longer store as much carbon — and its capacity to provide water, food and health benefits to people is also diminished.
Q: What steps do countries and businesses need to take in 2021 to prevent that from happening?
LB: There is no time for incremental actions — governments and companies must make transformational changes at national and industry levels. In 2020, research by Conservation International scientists helped identify certain places on Earth that we simply cannot afford to destroy due to the vast amounts of carbon they store. Now, countries must start implementing policies and on-the-ground initiatives to ensure that those places are either conserved or managed sustainably. Across the private sector, businesses must reduce the impact of their operations on biodiversity by sourcing materials that are sustainably produced and limiting deforestation.
DH: Exactly. We need climate action at a scale and pace that is unprecedented. Luckily, we know what steps need to be taken. Right now, we are working to create a roadmap that will help determine “who” — from farmers to foresters to consumers — must do “what” and “where” for nature to contribute to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). These actions include protecting mangroves and peatlands, restoring forests and wetlands, and sustainably managing our farmlands.
Q: Do you think the pandemic will affect countries’ abilities to achieve their climate and biodiversity goals?
LB: The global economy has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and some countries may be hesitant to commit to more ambitious goals. However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that achieving those climate and biodiversity goals can stimulate long-term economic growth — from generating green jobs to preventing natural disasters that could cost billions of dollars in damages.
DH: And let’s not forget that protecting nature could help prevent future pandemics. A recent study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that reducing deforestation, restricting the global wildlife trade and monitoring the emergence of new viruses before they spread, could decrease the risk of future pandemics by nearly 30 percent — with a 10-year investment that is 50 times less expensive than the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date.
Protecting nature is a win-win-win for bolstering the global economy, stabilizing the climate and improving human health.
Dave Hole is the vice president for global solutions at Conservation International. Lina Barrera is the vice president for international policy 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: Mangroves in Liberia (© Michael Christopher Brown)
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