We Can’t Have a Stable Climate If We Keep Destroying Nature

TThe climate is rapidly changing and is already changing. Our planet is 1.2°C (2.2°F) hotter today than in 1908, when Henry Ford debuted the world’s first mass-market automobile. Without a dramatic course correction, there is a 50-50 chance of planetary warming surpassing 1.5°C (2.7°F) in the next five years. That point could see 90 percent coral reefs disappear, intense heat waves become 9 times more common and sea levels rise by several feet. Historically, the conversation around climate solutions has focused on decarbonization—reducing fossil fuel use and investing in renewables. This is important, but it’s not enough. Even if 100 percent of our energy sources are clean, temperature will still rise even if there is a change in how we relate to the environment.

Earth’s forests, grasslands and marshes are natural climate regulators, thanks to the silent miracle of photosynthesis. But when we degrade that land—through deforestation, over-grazing and over-farming—we release the carbon stored in those ecosystems, while reducing their capacity to store future emissions. We have already converted 50% of nature into agricultural land, roads, and cities. This is deeply concerning, as intact nature absorbs 25 percent of our carbon emissions from fossil fuel use—that number is falling every year as nature is further degraded. About 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by unsustainable land use. While human-managed lands might be an effective tool to mitigate the climate crisis, instead they accelerate it.

This month, scientists from Conservation International and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions, a first-of-its-kind blueprint for maximizing nature’s climate-stabilizing potential. This report proposes a new principle called the Carbon Law for Nature. To reduce planetary warming, and to keep 1.50C in sight, it is necessary that we reach net zero land-sector emission by 2030. After this, we can reach 10 million tons annually. negative Emissions reductions to 2050 We have an achievable plan to reach this goal. We don’t need to resort to science fiction geoengineering or unproven technology. It relies instead on an arsenal of well-proven conservation methods, many of them centuries old and easily scaleable.

First, protect the carbon-rich ecosystems that remain intact, prioritizing “irrecoverable” places that cannot regrow—e.g., the Amazon rainforest and the Congo Basin peatlands—within our lifetimes.

The second is to restore ecosystems high in carbon that are already lost. This includes coastal mangrove forests and peatlands as well as rainforests.

The third is how to manage working lands, including farmland timberland and grassland. The transformation of the global food system is the key to reducing land-based carbon emissions by around 80 percent. It’s the biggest driver of deforestation as well as a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses. This transformation must be both top-down and bottom-up—nearly everyone has a role to play. The supply chain of large companies must be re-examined by financial institutions. This will allow them to shift capital away the degrading and destroying businesses towards the ones that are able to regenerate and rebuild. Governments must also use economic incentives in order to encourage good behaviour and discourage the worst. This includes shifting subsidies away from heavy industries, investing more in climate-smart agriculture, grazing and imposition of import restrictions for unsustainable commodities.

Small changes made by managers and landowners at the ground level can make a huge difference in aggregate. Farmers, for example, can do their part—and improve livelihoods at the same time—by integrating trees into cropland, using fertilizers more efficiently and adopting low-till soil management. A mere 20 percent change in the practices of farming, forests and ranches around the world would result in a climate crisis. This is comparable to the removal of 1.7 billion cars from the roads. Notably, many climate-smart agriculture practices do not reduce crop yields—in many cases, they can SupportProduce more by increasing resistance to drought and heat waves

If all three components of this plan—protection, management, and restoration—are adopted in earnest, they will not only help fight climate change; they will also protect wildlife, reduce disease spillover, promote food and water security and grow rural economies. It is this that bold climate action can truly achieve its full potential: A more prosperous, equitable and abundant world.

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