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
To prevent pandemics, new plan must invest in nature: 3 stories you may have missed
Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
Protecting nature is key to preventing future pandemics.
The story: The Biden Administration recently proposed a US$ 30 billion strategy to protect Americans from future pandemics as part of his “American Jobs Plan” — with investments in medicine, biosecurity and virus research. Notably missing from this proposal, writes Brett Hartl in an op-ed for The Hill, is a plan to prevent emerging disease outbreaks at their source: nature.
“Zoonotic diseases from wildlife will emerge at a growing rate as the destruction of the world’s last natural habitats continues to accelerate,” Hartl writes. “If Biden sincerely wants to demonstrate that his administration is concerned about stopping the next pandemic before it occurs, then his budget must also invest in taking a bold, precautionary action to address the degradation of nature.”
But what exactly will it take to “address the degradation of nature”? (Hint: keep reading)
The big picture: “In July of last year, a group of leading conservation scientists” — including four Conservation International experts — “concluded that for just US$ 22 billion to US$ 31 billion per year the world could curtail the destruction of the natural world and reckless exploitation of wildlife — the likely root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hartl writes.
The strategy is three-pronged: reduce deforestation, restrict the global wildlife trade and monitor the emergence of new viruses before they spread. And while US$ 31 billion may sound like a lot, it is a fraction of the trillions of dollars already spent to respond to the coronavirus and mitigate its impacts.
Read the fully story here.
- Further reading: 3 ways to prevent the next pandemic with nature
Underwater odors could provide hints to healthier coral reefs.
The story: Smelly chemicals released by species across the animal kingdom can indicate a number of things — from stress to sickness. However, smells released in the ocean are much more difficult to study than those on land. A team of scientists has set out to change that, reports Alla Katsnelson for Smithsonian Magazine. They used small plastic containers equipped with special tubes to extract chemicals released by mature corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The researchers found that not only can the chemicals indicate how corals are affected by climate change, the chemicals can also dissipate in the atmosphere and influence local weather conditions such as cloud cover.
The big picture: It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are struggling to survive as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change. However, studying the chemicals released by corals in response to the changing climate and human activities could help scientists detect signs of stress early on. This is crucial because reefs that experience relatively little stress from human activity are the most likely to benefit from conservation efforts, according to a recent study.
“The less stress a reef is under, the greater the conservation potential,” Conservation International’s Jack Kittinger, a marine biologist and co-author on the study, told Conservation News. “Reefs in this category exist in all the oceans — they aren’t in just one country, or one region. Some of these reefs are fairly degraded. Others are fairly healthy. But they all have the potential for significant conservation gains.”
Read the full story here.
- Further reading: A ‘first aid kit’ for the world’s coral reefs
‘Shocking’ storms could fuel climate change in the Arctic.
The story: Lightning storms are common in the tropics, where hot air mingles with cold winds to form electrically charged clouds — often with heavy rains. However, a new study found that the Arctic could soon become a hotspot for lightning storms, with the number of lightning strikes expected to more than double by the end of the century, reported Matt Simon for Wired. Research shows that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. As this frigid landscape gets drier and warmer, it is turning into a tinder box — and lightning could provide the match that ignites wildfires such as those that ravaged the Russian Arctic in 2020.
The big picture: Although there are few trees to fuel wildfires in the Arctic, flames spread quickly through the tundra’s peat — the partially decayed vegetation that lines the ecosystem’s frozen soil, or permafrost. This is particularly harmful as it could release massive stores of carbon that have been locked away in the peat and permafrost for centuries.
“When this soil burns, the fire smolders deeper into the ground, releasing incredible amounts of a greenhouse gas that in a cooler, wetter Arctic would have been safely locked away,” Simon writes.
“The only remedy to restore some semblance of balance [in the Arctic] will be for humanity to bring down the production of emissions — and fast.”
Read the full story here.
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