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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On anniversary of Trump’s Paris withdrawal, 3 reasons for hope
A year ago today, U.S. President Donald Trump signaled his intent to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. Yet global climate commitments are stronger than ever. How is that?
Trump’s decision has spurred much more climate action than what would have been activated by the Paris Agreement alone. In one year, we’ve created new avenues and opportunities but also, a deeper sense of responsibility across different sectors of society. During my years working on climate change, we’ve given responsibility to our national governments to act on climate change. Now, in the United States and around the world, cities, states, investors and companies have taken it and stepped up.
The democratization, disaggregation and devolution of action on climate has been empowering; I’ve had conversations with companies and investors who are now approaching this challenge with real interest. It has been unlike anything I’ve seen in nearly a decade working on climate.
So although Trump’s decision a year ago was a dire mistake — weakening the United States economically and diplomatically — it has opened more doors than it has closed. On the anniversary of the U.S. decision to leave the Paris Agreement, here are three reasons for hope.
1. Macron’s leadership reinvigorated France — and the rest of the globe
French President Emmanuel Macron has stepped up as the global leader of science and the climate movement.
When Macron was elected in May 2017, he began taking responsibility for the international climate agreement born in France’s capital city by supporting the science and commitments needed to fight climate change. At the One Planet Summit in Paris in December, he awarded 18 climate scientists, mostly from the United States, multimillion-dollar grants to relocate to France for the rest of Trump’s term.
In April, when Macron visited the U.S., he addressed Congress saying, “there is no Planet B,” referring to the importance of protecting the Earth against climate change for future generations. His leadership is an important counterweight to the lack of United States’ action on climate change.
2. New crop of leaders taking charge, making commitments
Still, apart from the United States’ own climate commitment, the U.S. has in the past supported the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, which manages the Paris Agreement process and negotiations. With Trump reneging on that commitment as well, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped in.
Bloomberg said in April that he would write a US$ 4.5 million check to cover this year’s U.S. commitment to the UNFCCC secretariat. Bloomberg said that he wouldn’t fund next year’s commitments because he hopes that Trump will change his mind and rejoin the Paris Agreement.
Other leaders are still planning ahead. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown will host the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco along with Bloomberg, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, and Indian business leader Anand Mahindra. Leaders across sectors will gather to discuss how to accelerate commitments to climate action and whether local and regional governments and businesses can demonstrate genuine progress toward meeting global goals.
3. From McDonald’s to Apple, companies are responding to public opinion
Companies are expected to announce their own commitments at the summit in California — and we’ve already seen some changes this year.
In April, Apple announced that for every old device recycled through its Apple GiveBack program through the end of the month, the company would make a donation to Conservation International. Also, in May, the company announced a joint venture to commercialize technology that eliminates direct greenhouse gas emissions from the aluminum smelting process used to make its devices.
Last year, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and a longtime leader in corporate sustainability, announced its goal to eliminate 1 gigaton of greenhouse gases from its supply chain by 2030. This year, the company expanded its commitments to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain with the hope of creating a ripple effect across all its suppliers.
In March, the world’s largest restaurant chain announced it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. The first restaurant company to set such a target, the company plans to expand efforts to source beef sustainably, to promote renewable energy, and to reduce waste, using targets for each sector approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative.
Companies aren’t required by any regulation to cut their carbon emissions, but the signal from the public to act on climate has been stronger than any regulation. Companies are realizing that their bottom line and their future sustainability depends on the extent to which they can address climate change — and now they’re acting on it.
One more thing
A crucial part of the solution to climate change is all around us: nature. A recent study found that “regreening” the Earth would provide more than one-third of the action needed by 2030 to stabilize global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. To that end, Conservation International is working on implementing one of the largest tropical forest restoration projects in the world in Brazil and partnering with governments to raise the ambition in their climate targets. Meanwhile, the Global Climate Action Summit in California will bring “non-state actors” — cities, states, companies, and investors — into the fold.
The progress we’ve seen over the last year has confirmed what climate wonks have long known — that nature is an indispensable ally in the fight against climate change.
Shyla Raghav is Conservation International’s climate change lead.
- 5 questions you’ve wanted to ask about the Paris Agreement
- Climate’s new leaders: 6 reasons for hope
- Meet a scientist: An optimist in the face of climate change
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