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 science: protecting high seas hotspots, wildlife and more
Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts.
1. An effective strategy to protect a high seas hotspot
More than 60 percent of the world’s oceans lie beyond the jurisdiction of any nation — an area commonly known as the “high seas.”
However, only about 1 percent of this vast and largely unexplored expanse is protected.
In a new report, a team of ocean experts outlines the importance of creating a high seas marine protected area in one of the most unique biodiversity hotspots on Earth: the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges.
Located in international waters off the coasts of Peru and Chile, these underwater mountain chains stretch 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) across the southeastern Pacific Ocean and provide critical habitat and migratory routes for a variety of marine life, including whales, leatherback sea turtles, corals and hundreds of other marine species.
“Although Peru and Chile have recently taken steps to protect areas within their waters, more than 73 percent of the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges lie outside of national jurisdiction,” said Daniel Wagner, Conservation International ocean scientist and the lead author of the report. “This means that the majority of these habitats — and the many species they support — are largely unprotected.”
And according to Wagner, the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges face looming threats.
“Overfishing, climate change and deep-sea mining could have a profoundly negative impact on this region,” Wagner added. “So far, commercial fishing has been limited in the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, and deep-sea mineral exploration has not yet occurred, providing a window of opportunity to protect this area without significantly impacting those industries.”
Co-authored by 27 leading experts in ocean science, policy and law, the report found that the most effective strategies to protect the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges include limiting fishing activities, prohibiting seabed mining and establishing a high seas marine protected area in the region.
“Not only is this area a biodiversity hotspot, it is also culturally significant as Polynesian and other seafarers have sailed across it on their way to South America for centuries.” said Wagner. “Due to their exceptional natural and cultural significance, these ridges are one of the most important high seas areas to protect globally.”
2. Conserving wildlife — and the roles they play in nature — to improve ecosystem health
Deforestation, the global wildlife trade and other human activities are decimating species around the planet.
According to a new study, they are also eliminating the critical functions that native wildlife and plants provide for healthy ecosystems.
“Simply counting the number of species in a tropical forest does not provide a full picture of the biodiversity in that ecosystem,” said Jorge Ahumada, a wildlife scientist at Conservation International and co-author on the study.
“From small birds to massive carnivores, every native species has its own niche in an ecosystem based on traits such as its size, diet or reproductive habits. If a species disappears from an area, its absence could create a domino effect that impacts the broader ecosystem. We need to better understand the ramifications of local species loss.”
To do this, the researchers first analyzed wildlife photos from 15 protected areas in tropical forests around the world, including in Asia, Africa and South America. The photos were pulled from the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, which uses motion-detector cameras to monitor global species trends in tropical forests.
Then, they studied the known traits of each of these species and compared them to the traits of other species in that area, calculating what is known as an ecosystem’s “functional diversity” — the variety of roles species play in their habitats.
The study’s authors concluded that destructive human activities decrease the diversity of species’ traits in an area, which can have particularly profound impacts on an ecosystem’s food chain.
“We found that in areas where local species extinctions have been documented due to significant deforestation or poaching, such as in Korup National Park in Cameroon, large carnivores like leopards and golden cats are the first to go,” he said. “Without these apex predators, entire food chains can be thrown out of balance. Eventually populations of smaller herbivores will skyrocket, forcing more competition for the same limited resources.”
Determining the variety of traits in an ecosystem is fundamental to prioritizing new areas for wildlife conservation, Ahumada added.
“This research illustrates the importance of local species to the health of an ecosystem,” said Ahumada. “We can use this information to identify new sites for protected areas that conserve native species — and the roles they play in their habitats.”
- FURTHER READING: Study: Protecting tropics could save half of species on brink
3. Conservation delays can reduce climate benefits from protecting nature
In 2017, a team of scientists led by Conservation International’s Bronson Griscom produced a landmark study: They found that nature can provide at least 30 percent of the carbon emissions reductions necessary to keep average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, the speed at which countries protect and restore nature is just as important as its mitigation potential, according to a recent paper co-authored by Griscom.
“We only have a decade left to prevent the worst impacts of climate change,” said Griscom. “Natural climate solutions — such as reforestation or restoration of mangroves — are effective at reducing emissions but they can’t fix our climate overnight. It can take years for these efforts to reach their maximum mitigation levels. We must act now.”
The paper’s authors analyzed a variety of factors that can reduce or delay the climate benefits from projects that protect or restore nature — including the speed at which a project is implemented, the amount of land involved and an area’s ability to absorb emissions.
Depending on these factors, they found that delays could slash a project’s expected emissions reductions — sometimes in half — by mid-century.
“Any delay in action will require more aggressive reduction efforts later on, making it even more difficult for countries to meet their climate goals,” said Griscom. “The good news is that we have a variety of practices that can avoid delays, and unlock natural climate solutions more quickly.”
For example, a restoration technique known as “applied nucleation” helps regrow forests by planting relatively small islands of fast-growing trees that attract birds, insects and seed dispersers — reducing the time needed for restoration outcomes by as much as 75 percent.
“We must remain optimistic, while being aware of the barriers we face,” said Griscom. “We can rapidly unlock the benefits from natural climate solutions by learning from previous projects that have succeeded and using the best available science to minimize delays.”
Cover image: A humpback whale in Tahiti (© Rodolphe Holler)
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