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
New report on carbon markets: What you need to know
The market for carbon offsets must be scaled up globally to make a sufficient dent in climate change, according to a new report that lays out a path toward a high-quality global carbon market.
What does any of this mean? Let’s take you through it.
Why is this report important?
The report was released by the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, led by United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action Mark Carney. It lays out principles and recommendations for bolstering and regulating — on a global scale — the market for voluntary carbon offsets, an increasingly popular tool for companies trying to neutralize some of their emissions of climate-warming carbon.
What are ‘offsets’ again?
The idea behind offsets is this: A company (or government or individual) can buy or trade a “credit” worth 1 metric ton of carbon, representing a portion of their emissions that they’re trying to neutralize by reducing carbon somewhere else. So revenue from that credit would go either toward the protection of a prescribed area of forest, for example, or toward an equivalent amount of carbon sequestered by carbon-capture technology, an as-yet underdeveloped method for removing carbon from the atmosphere. (More on that later.)
Aren’t offsets controversial?
Voluntary carbon markets have come under scrutiny, particularly nature-based offset projects, because in their early days, they did not always deliver their hoped-for climate impacts. Major advances have been made in the past decade in ensuring their long-term effectiveness, however. There are some remaining unresolved issues related to structures and standards, though — issues that are potentially holding back additional investment in carbon markets — and that’s what the task force’s report addresses directly.
So offsets are useful?
Even for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint — as many are! — nature-based offsets represent one of the only immediate and effective ways for some high-emitting industries (airlines, cement manufacturers and more) to abate hard-to-cut emissions, while continuing to reduce emissions elsewhere in their operations.
So why are new standards and rules needed?
Good question. Let’s bring in an expert.
“Demand for offsets is surging, but it is stymied by the fact that the voluntary market for carbon offsets … has a panoply of different rules, strictures and standards,” said Agustin Silvani, a conservation finance expert at Conservation International.
To that end, the report calls for stronger governance, in the form of a body to establish and monitor standards, repair faulty validation and verification processes, and prevent fraud. All in all, the report is trying to ensure “high-quality” carbon offsets.
What do ‘high-quality’ projects look like?
Two examples for you.
On a national level, Costa Rica slashed deforestation rates through a tax that pays landowners to keep forests standing. The Central American country monitors deforestation rates to know whether they are getting results across the whole country or simply displacing (or delaying) deforestation. Through this system, Costa Rica generates US$ 30 million a year for forest conservation and has conserved or restored close to 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres). They’re now looking to sell the carbon credits generated through this program to international buyers.
On a site-specific level, through a project in Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — which despite its protected status saw deforestation fueled by agricultural encroachment and illegal logging — Conservation International helps to provide local farmers with economic alternatives to deforestation. Families in this area pledge not to cut down trees in return for technical and financial benefits; these agreements are partially funded through carbon credits. Now, Conservation International is working with governments to include the credits generated by this project to become part of Peru’s national program to meet its carbon-reduction commitments to the U.N.
(Site-specific projects like Alto Mayo are important for contributing to national-level outcomes, according to Conservation International expert Maggie Comstock, who says it is essential that these on-the-ground activities are recognized as part of the national forest carbon program and accelerate national-scale implementation.)
What about that ‘as-yet underdeveloped’ carbon-capture technology you mentioned?
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is — as its name suggests — a technological method for capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. Instead of using the carbon to grow wood, as trees do, most CCS systems bury captured carbon into the ground. (A useful primer on CCS is here.) While this technology has captivated investors and policymakers, it’s not deployed at anywhere near the scale to make a dent in the climate (and in fact the only CCS facility in the United States closed this week).
So this is why we still need forest-carbon projects?
We’ll let the expert answer that.
“Natural climate solutions are not only desirable, they’re necessary if we want to stabilize the climate,” says Conservation International’s Silvani, noting that protecting and restoring nature can provide at least 30 percent of all global action necessary to avoid worst-case climate scenarios.
Not only that, he notes, nature-based offsets provide additional benefits that go beyond simply a reduction in carbon emissions, including wildlife habitat, freshwater regulation and sustainable livelihoods.
The task force’s report lays out a series of recommendations for next steps (you can find them here); now it’s up to policymakers, companies and U.N. climate negotiators to begin to put them into motion.
The stakes are high: As Silvani pointed out, the demand for offsets is clearly there, as is the need — the task force report estimates that voluntary carbon markets would need to grow more than 15-fold this decade to keep average global temperature rise within the 1.5-degree C (2.7 F) “safe” zone. Trillions of dollars in private capital is beginning to trickle in, so ensuring that it is invested in projects that are efficient and effective is paramount, Silvani said.
“To say that the task force’s report is necessary,” he says, “is an understatement.”
Agustin Silvani is the senior vice president of conservation finance at Conservation International. Bruno Vander Velde is senior communications director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.
Cover image: The Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru (© Onmer Cenepo)
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