The forests, grasslands and swamps of the earth are natural regulators of the climate, thanks to the silent miracle of photosynthesis. But when we degrade that land, through deforestation, overgrazing and over farming, we release the carbon stored in those ecosystems, reducing their ability to store future emissions. We have already converted 50 percent of all nature into farmland, cities and roads. This is deeply concerning, as untouched nature absorbs 25 percent of our carbon emissions from fossil fuel use – that number decreases every year as nature is further degraded. Unsustainable land use and agriculture are the source of about a quarter of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Man-managed lands could be a powerful tool to mitigate the climate crisis; instead, they are accelerating it.
This month, scientists from Conservation International and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions, a one-of-a-kind project to maximize nature’s climate stabilization potential. In this report we propose a new guiding principle known as the Carbon Law for Nature: To limit planetary warming and keep 1.50 ° C in sight, we need to achieve zero net emissions in the terrestrial sector by 2030, then reach 10 billion tons of negative emissions by 2050. Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious goal, but we have a realistic plan to achieve it. Our plan does not require unproven technologies or science fiction geoengineering projects. Instead, it relies on a toolkit of proven conservation measures, many of which are centuries old and can be quickly scaled down.
First, protect carbon-rich ecosystems that remain intact by prioritizing “irrecoverable” places that cannot regrow, such as the Amazon rainforest and Congo Basin peatlands, over the course of our lifetimes.
Second, to restore high-carbon ecosystems that have already been lost, especially coastal mangrove forests, peat bogs and rainforests.
Third, we need to fix the way we manage working land: agricultural land, woodland and pasture. About 80% of the earth’s emissions reductions depend on the transformation of the global food system, the main driver of deforestation and one of the main drivers of emissions. This transformation must be both from above and from below – almost everyone has a role to play. Large companies need to reexamine their supply chains, while financial institutions shift capital from companies that degrade and destroy to those that regenerate and restore. At the same time, governments must use economic incentives to reward good behavior and discourage the bad; this includes redirecting subsidies from heavy industry, investing in climate-friendly agriculture and grazing, and approving import restrictions on unsustainable raw materials.
At the grassroots level, modest changes by landowners and managers can have huge aggregate effects. Farmers, for example, can do their part – and improve livelihoods at the same time – by integrating trees into farmland, using fertilizers more efficiently and adopting low-till soil management. If only 20% of global forests, farms and pastures switched to greener practices, the impact on the climate would be similar to removing 1.7 billion cars from the roads. In particular, many climate-friendly farming practices do not reduce yields, in many cases they can to sustain production by increasing resilience to heat waves and droughts.
If all three components of this plan – protection, management and restoration – are taken seriously, they will not only help combat climate change; they will also protect wildlife, reduce the spread of disease, promote food and water security, and grow rural economies. This is the true potential of bold climate action: a more prosperous, fairer and more abundant world.
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