Let’s not pretend we can reach our climate goals without trees
This article originally appeared in Nature4Climate.
We humans just can’t help ourselves. Apparently – for evolutionary reasons – we are wired to create a ‘them versus us’ framework for interpreting the world. For our first ancestors, this was an advantage, helping us to sort out friend from foe at rapid speed. Sadly, this also means that today – when we are in dire need of more cross-faction collaboration to solve the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss – we are pointlessly pitting solution against solution in the public debate. An example of this is the recent New York Times opinion piece by an IPCC author, which joins a divisive campaign against those advocating for the need to both protect forests and grow new ones.
It is extremely disappointing to continue to see these solutions framed as an “either/or” proposition. We are in a climate crisis and need every tool in the toolbox; there is no luxury of choosing between technology and nature. This argument is particularly odd given the IPCC’s most recent report which lists restoration of ecosystems as one of the top five most cost-effective climate actions we can take by 2030. This definitive scientific report states with high confidence that rapid deployment of land-based measures for reducing emissions is ‘essential in all pathways’ for keeping global warming to 1.5°C. Put simply, we cannot get to 1.5 without nature – including both the protection of our remaining forests and restoring damaged ecosystems. Not only can we not reach our agreed global goal without nature, but we also need to mobilise fast, as nature’s efficacy and abilities to mitigate the most damage are most potent in the next eight years.
Sadly, we are nowhere near close to that goal today because of our continued destruction of nature – and because corporate and public investment is falling well short of what is needed to end nature loss. We need to stimulate investment in nature now to avoid the risky proposition of further dependence on carbon removal technologies that are currently nascent, expensive and still largely theoretical at scale.
Neglecting investments in nature today is one of the worst things we could do. We need more, not less, investment in nature – for so many obvious reasons. While we will need carbon removal technologies as a response to climate change, they will do absolutely nothing towards stopping and reversing biodiversity loss. This is now widely accepted as a human-made crisis on the same existential scale as climate change. Nature-based solutions – when done right – deliver immeasurable benefits for climate, nature and people, and are closely aligned with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
If we are to stand any chance at all of succeeding, we have to do everything in our power as soon as possible. And there are enough of us on the planet – and enough money – to do many things at once. As the author states up front, ‘trees are our original carbon removal technology: through photosynthesis, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.’ This is why so many scientists are focused on researching the best strategies to avoid losing that carbon, which has already been stored over millennia. In fact, our dependence on yet-to-be-scaled carbon removal technologies will increase exponentially as we lose that ‘irrecoverable carbon,’ which will take centuries to restore. That is why leading scientists came together to launch the ‘natural climate solutions’ hierarchy that urges climate efforts to focus on the protection of nature first, followed by land management strategies and then restoration.
Nobody in the nature-based solutions community is arguing that we don’t need drastic emissions reductions from fossil fuels. This has to be the priority. Nor is this community arguing against investment in new technology. But arguments for “either/or” divisions create unnecessary confusion and uncertainty that inhibits investment, particularly from companies that are trying to navigate this space. The fact is that we need corporate investments to increase exponentially in nature to meet our climate goals, which is why the We Mean Business Coalition is calling on companies to address at least 10% of their annual emissions through nature investments in addition to halving their own emissions by 2030.
Scrutiny of carbon markets is warranted and welcomed to ensure they fulfil their potential to direct much-needed private finance to nature-based climate solutions in support of the goals of the Paris Agreement. Emerging initiatives, such as the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative are bringing much-needed guidance to companies to ensure their carbon credit investments are done right and with credibility. By following VCMI’s guidance companies should feel confident in their ability to make impactful, and critically needed investments in nature.
We also know we need carbon removals to meet our goals – both nature-based and technology-based. It is unhelpful to pit these vital solutions against each other. The good news is companies should – and are – doing both: taking holistic approaches which integrate both nature-based and technology solutions. Others should follow their lead.
There is no doubt in this age of jeopardy that we need to hedge our bets on all available solutions. Cutting nature out of the equation is equivalent to entering the ring with one arm tied behind your back. Let’s stop chasing sensational headlines, and take pains to emphasize the “both/and” imperative of the climate response.