Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our planet today. As we race to solve the climate challenge with technology—innovating clean energy solutions that lessen our reliance on fossil fuels—we often overlook the fact that nature has worked as a carbon store for hundreds of millions of years. The way we manage our lands can either accelerate or slow the rate of climate change.
To better understand the conservation potential, The Nature Conservancy is conducting a meta-analysis of existing studies—including the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report—and preliminary findings indicate that better management of forests, together with wetlands, grasslands and agriculture, could mitigate as much as 20% of human-caused greenhouse gases.
While conservation is not an alternative to reducing fossil fuel emissions—we need to do both—reaching this mitigation potential would be as significant as shutting down every fossil fuel power station in the world. This kind of conservation work not only saves nature; it also benefits people by creating economic opportunities and reducing risk for communities threatened by climate change. By promoting these nature-based responses, we are striving to create a virtuous cycle where we take care of nature, so that nature takes care of us.
Through this meta-analysis, we have uncovered an interesting opportunity that builds on our work already underway at sites all over the world. What we now need is a clear understanding of which biological systems offer the most feasible carbon storage opportunities and the new business models that can enable large-scale replication. Some of these opportunities can be unlocked with new financial mechanisms for private-sector investment, some with policy fixes and others will require new research. The Nature Conservancy is focused on identifying these barriers and convening the decision-makers needed to unlock that potential.
We have identified three approaches that show tremendous promise, and we are working around the world to expand their scale:
- Preserve Healthy Ecosystems: Destruction of tropical forests is the source of 15% of current greenhouse gas emissions. Halting forest loss is one of the most cost-effective responses to climate change, although policy reforms, such as improving land tenure, can pose challenges. In the Brazilian state of Pará, we have developed a set of tools for resolving land tenure conflicts that the Brazilian government has integrated into its improved regulatory actions. In parallel, we are working with local communities to sustainably intensify cattle ranching while expanding shade-grown cocoa farms to improve local incomes without clearing forest. Together these efforts have reduced deforestation in Pará by 70%.
- Restore Degraded Ecosystems: Rejuvenating degraded areas and restoring or planting new forests increase nature’s carbon storage capacity. Working with partners in the U.S., we have replanted farmlands on the Mississippi floodplains with native commercial hardwoods to restore critical floodplain landscapes, store carbon and increase future revenue through low-impact timber harvest and, conceivably, carbon markets.
- Improve Land Management: Smart land use practices can lower greenhouse gas emissions while also generating benefits for people and nature. In Kenya, our partner, the Northern Rangelands Trust’s managed grazing program teaches herders that, by bunching cattle to clear and fertilize one area before moving on to new pasture, grass grows back more quickly with stronger, deeper roots. Better grass provides healthier forage for wildlife and livestock and as livestock quality improves, herder incomes increase. Conservancy scientists have confirmed these healthy grasslands are also a viable carbon store and are piloting programs to sell carbon credits that generate income for local families, community development and conservation.
These are just three examples among many that The Nature Conservancy is pioneering in Indonesia, China, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Mexico, all 50 U.S. states—and around the world. We are implementing new, smart, cost-effective ways of re-greening the planet and each action is designed to have the largest possible impact; ensuring it can be replicated in other places and eventually threaded into the fabric of society.
It’s exciting to think about the opportunity in front of us. We aim to inspire change across hundreds of millions of acres around the world. It’s a heavy lift, but I’m optimistic that by working together we can make a difference on this critical issue.
Brian McPeek is The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Conservation Officer. Learn more about our work at nature.org/global.