Nature-based solutions aren’t a silver-bullet climate solution, but neither is placing all bets on future technologies. If we don't invest in nature now, we can soon expect to spend far more on climate damage with far fewer paths forward.
We are in a climate emergency; and in an emergency, time matters. Today, the IPCC — the world’s authority on climate change — released the final chapter of its sixth assessment and made it undeniably clear: We’re not moving fast enough to head off catastrophic climate change and irrevocable damage to our lives and ecosystems.
Just as an emergency ambulance ride to the hospital can buy precious time in the fight to save a patient’s life, we need swift action to stabilize our atmosphere while we make our way towards long-term decarbonization strategies; and nature is a critical component of the climate solution that could be our “ambulance ride” during this critical time for the planet. Every day, trees, soil and water systems sequester carbon. We have the opportunity to work with the stewards of these natural systems to change how they manage their forests, farms, pastures and wetlands to increase the amount of carbon they store today. Through such “nature-based solutions,” we can increase the amount of CO2 being captured and stored in natural systems, to least 5 gigatons per year by 2030 and 10 gigatons per year by 2050.
For three decades, we’ve had agreement after agreement — from Kyoto to Paris — all saying that we need to act now to head off climate change. Yet, even with all these handshakes and good intentions, emissions have still gone up year after year. Every year of this “business as usual” puts our goal of staying below the critical threshold of 1.5°C of warming further out of reach, and with it our opportunity to avert the harshest impacts of climate change that set in at 2°C of warming and beyond. We need drastic and decisive action now. It’s not enough to just wait for technology to develop or for industries to overhaul their operations; we need accelerated investment in preserving and restoring nature at scale if we want to have a chance of heading off the worst damage to come.
Nature is an astonishingly complex web of living things and physical systems that developed together over eons. Within it, massive flows of energy and matter shaped the earth and everything that lives on it. For the last few thousand years, humanity profited from harvesting and mining. Why not now invest in restoring these systems to combat climate change for our collective benefit? Nature-based solutions can store massive quantities of carbon and they’re ready to deploy now. Trees, for example, are incredible marvels of carbon removal technology that self-reproduce via code and 3D printing and just happen to have been around for millenia. By investing in nature-based solutions we also deliver compounding benefits by improving the health of ecosystems and the local economies that depend on them. If we don’t invest in changes that preserve and restore natural systems like forests, soil, and wetlands, we lose both their ability to sequester huge amounts of carbon and to support the webs of life that support human existence.
Should governments, companies and individuals decrease their emissions? Yes, without a doubt. Can we eliminate all emissions from society today or in the next five years? Well, we could turn off every engine and stop burning every ounce of fossil fuel — but people would starve and freeze to death. Equitable change at global scale takes time and investment. Our most vulnerable populations cannot afford to purchase a new electric stove, trade a diesel tractor for electric, or stop running their heat. So, how can we make progress on our climate commitments now while we transition our economy to lower emissions? We can preserve and restore natural systems.
Companies hold the largest lever on emissions in their operations, supply chains, land holdings and investment dollars. After core work to dramatically cut emissions, their climate strategies should focus in two places:
1. Immediately remove carbon from the atmosphere using nature-based solutions
We need to bridge the gap to a low-carbon future by investing in nature-based solutions now. Nature features dynamic systems, so nature-based climate solutions require careful measurement to ensure efficacy. But when done right, they can be a reliable way to help realize our climate goals while creating lasting benefits for the people and creatures that depend on our planet’s ecosystems. At NCX, we’ve worked with thousands of family landowners to incentivize them to grow their forests a little longer and store more carbon. Indigo Ag, for example, is increasing soil carbon by supporting farmers' transition to regenerative practices.
2. Invest in developing technology that will enable further removals
We must scale nature-based solutions; but we can't just “forest” our way out of climate change. Even 10 gigatons of CO2 removed a year simply isn't enough. We'll need other means of removing carbon. Thoughtful investments now in nascent technological solutions such as capturing CO2 from the air may help close the gap in the years to come. These need research, time and money to develop into accessible, reliable options. I’m frequently inspired by the work that Frontier is doing to secure demand from buyers to help boost cutting-edge carbon-removal companies as they try to scale. But just like nature-based solutions aren’t the complete climate solution, placing all our bets on future technology as a deus ex machina isn’t the right approach, either. If we don't invest in nature now, in the future we can expect to spend far more on the damage with far fewer paths forward.