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

Nature’s role comes through in historic climate agreement

Jan 21, 2021, 16:04 PM by User Not Found
Climate negotiators in Paris unveiled a final draft of a climate change agreement on Saturday, with the role of nature featured prominently as a solution.

Climate negotiators in Paris approved a landmark climate change agreement on Saturday, with the role of nature featured prominently as a solution to climate change. The pact was widely praised by environmental and scientific organizations, including Conservation International (CI).

Among the accomplishments of the negotiations were the overall inclusion of nature in the agreement, recognition of the role of tropical forests in curbing emissions — forests are referenced 11 times in the final draft — and a growing emphasis on adapting to climate impacts.

The Paris Agreement will serve as a foundation for all nations to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with an aspiration to reach 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), and to adapt to climate change impacts already unfolding. With buy-in from nearly every country in the world, the agreement represents the single most important collective action for addressing climate change.

“The Paris Agreement is a transformative diplomatic victory,” said Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of CI. “The hard work of delivery begins now. The security of nations and humanity depends upon the reduction of emissions and the protection of nature.”

Negotiators and experts reinforced the notion that there was still much work to be done to assure the success of the pact.

“With this agreement, we start down a path to avoid devastating impacts from climate change, but we will all need to do much more than what has been pledged here in Paris,” said Lina Barrera, CI’s senior director of international policy.

Significant elements of the agreement include:

  • The new agreement explicitly recognizes that REDD+ — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, a mechanism to keep forests standing to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions — is part of the solution to climate change, sending a strong political signal to governments to responsibly manage forests and scale up REDD+ activities. Tropical forests alone represent at least 30% of the solution to limiting emissions.
  • Countries have agreed on the fundamental importance of nature for ensuring sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, permanently enshrining the role of nature in addressing the dual challenges of adaptation and mitigation. This will encourage countries to maintain healthy ecosystems for the sake of the climate.
  • The new agreement puts forth a global goal to enhance humanity’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability. It will help countries cooperate and share knowledge and will facilitate planning for the future to support climate-resilient development, particularly by explicitly recognizing the importance of ecosystems and ecological systems.

Despite the recognition of nature as a means of combating climate change, country commitments as they stand will limit warming only to 2.7 degrees C, far short of the collective aim of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, observers noted. The deal also falls short in securing the necessary funding to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy and address immediate as well as long-term adaptation measures needed to cope with the impacts of a changing climate.

Support for forests

During the first days of negotiations, Germany, Norway and the U.K. announced a commitment to provide up to US$ 5 billion to reduce deforestation through 2020. REDD+ remained an important topic throughout the talks, leading to formal recognition that countries should finance and implement REDD+ in the final Paris Agreement.

“Two significant features of this agreement are that all countries commit to reducing emissions and that these pledges will be revised and improved on a five-year cycle,” said Steve Panfil, technical advisor for REDD+ initiatives at CI. “Coming up with an agreement that includes universal participation while respecting the different circumstances of countries was difficult and is a major accomplishment.”

“The agreement leaves a number of details to be worked out,” he continued, “but there are clear signs that nature, including forest protection and restoration, is going to be part of the solution for many countries.”

Adapting to climate change

The pact includes a global goal on adaptation, indicating accord among countries that adapting to climate impacts is as important as slowing emissions — a nod to developing countries faced with immense challenges as climate impacts increase. For many of these countries, including Kiribati and other low-lying island nations, adaptation is not just a matter of building resilience, but of survival. It remains to be seen how this agreement will deliver concrete actions for them — not only in the long term, but also to address their immediate needs.

“While we have an aspirational global goal for adaptation, mobilizing the resources to address countries’ urgent individual needs is not going to be easy,” said Shyla Raghav, director of climate policy at CI. “We have much to do to ensure we can scale up adaptation and the finances needed to implement it.”

Paying for change

Developed countries agreed to continue to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries, recognizing the importance of increasing their support and also expanding the sources of funds for climate solutions. The agreement emphasizes the importance of immediate investments for both mitigation and adaptation, especially supporting developing countries — particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The inclusion of these actions for financing climate solutions will provide more opportunities for using nature’s power to combat climate change, though work remains in creating frameworks and incentives for further investments.

“Today, countries laid the groundwork for financially supporting climate action; however, how this support is realized is essential and remains largely unresolved,” said Maggie Comstock, senior manager for climate and biodiversity finance policy at CI. “In order to meet the goals of this historic agreement, an important next step is to build policy frameworks and create incentives for greater investment in addressing climate change.”

Many countries also indicated that they intend to meet at least part of their national commitments to reduce emissions by cooperating with other countries through investment in mitigation activities abroad. The Paris Agreement fully endorses such transfers, which could help the world collectively limit warming more quickly, and provides basic rules to ensure that they are carried out openly and fairly. Such cooperation is also likely to drive investment in keeping forests standing as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement will take effect in 2020.

Bruno Vander Velde is editorial director at Conservation International.

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Cover image: Mountains in Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy. (© Giuseppe Milo/Flickr Creative Commons)

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