Here are some things we know: that the climate is changing, that this is largely a result of too much carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that we continue to emit more carbon into the atmosphere every day.
We also know that, globally, forests and terrestrial soils combined store more than two and half times as much carbon as the atmosphere. And we know that, with some changes in how we manage our landscapes, they could emit less carbon and store much more.
So, given all that we do know, here’s one thing I don’t know: why we aren’t investing more in nature’s ability to address climate change.
It’s not for lack of evidence. Research by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and 14 partner organizations shows that, with some changes in land-use practices over the next decade, nature could provide a third of the emissions reductions we need between now and 2030 to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C. And these are solutions that are available today, with real possibilities for scaling.
Despite this, it seems that collectively we have forgotten the role nature can play in mitigating climate change. Natural climate solutions might offer a third of the solution for carbon emissions, but they take up less than 1% of the public discussion and just 3% of the public funding for emissions reduction. About 70% of the countries who have signed the Paris Agreement do reference land use in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), but very few include any specific actions or targets.
Still, as my colleague Lynn Scarlett reminds us, national commitments are not all that matter: climate change solutions are happening from the ground up. This is one promising signal from the upcoming Global Climate Action Summit. In addition to calling for more ambitious commitments on the national level, this event is shining a spotlight on the subnational players who are taking action now to help us meet our global climate goals.
Not just imperatives but opportunities
Even as we work to raise national and global ambition on climate action, states and regions are setting their own ambitious targets. Cities are banding together – through organizations like C40 and the 100 Resilient Cities network – to share best practices for adaptation and mitigation and present a united front on climate leadership. Business leaders are stepping up, making their own commitments to ensure their operations are more sustainable. And indigenous peoples and local communities of all sizes are making investments in nature, both for their economies and their environment.
Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations including TNC are coming together under the Nature4Climate campaign to speak with one voice about the importance of natural climate solutions. These solutions are not just an imperative for climate action – they are also an opportunity. A working forest, when sustainably managed, can be both a carbon sink and a source of jobs. Smarter forestry practices like reduced impact logging for carbon can maintain timber harvest while preserving more standing trees. And changes in agricultural practices can reduce carbon emissions and enhance the health and carbon content of soils to increase crop yields.
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We are seeing the powerful potential for these solutions to come together at the sub-national level – and on a large landscape scale. For example, TNC has worked for several years in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia and the three states comprising Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, where regional governments have signed Green Growth Compacts with local industry partners that aim to leverage the forestry and agricultural sectors for economic development while reducing deforestation and current land-based emissions.
However, reducing emissions is probably not enough to keep the climate in safe boundaries. We also need to also draw more carbon out of the atmosphere. Restoring ecosystems may be our best option for doing so in the short term.
Restoring degraded lands offers another source for economic growth while tackling climate change on the ground. Globally, the nascent restoration economy is estimated to produce at least $9 billion in annual economic activity, with the potential to grow much larger. Consider: current national commitments for reforestation add up 160 million acres – an area the size of South Africa. This could be a huge untapped opportunity for the companies that figure out how to deliver on those commitments efficiently.
National commitments are, of course, vitally important: they represent one of the most important ways to set goals and hold ourselves accountable at the global level. But it’s important not to lose sight of everything happening at the subnational level, especially when it comes to natural climate solutions. The immediate impact we’re seeing from local, lands-based work is crucial. Our research also indicates we need to accelerate investment in natural climate solutions in the next 10 years to ensure nature’s maximum capacity to reduce emissions and store more carbon in the landscape.
And here is one more thing we know: if we don’t act soon enough, the results of climate change will likely be catastrophic. Hopefully the Global Climate Action Summit will yield new commitments, new opportunities for on-the-ground action, and new investments in nature-based solutions – because making those investments today may be our best route to a safer, more resilient tomorrow.