We Can’t Have a Stable Climate If We Keep Destroying Nature

The climate is changing, and it is changing quickly. Our planet is 1.2°C (2.2°F) hotter today than in 1908, when Henry Ford debuted the world’s first mass-market automobile. Without a dramatic course correction, there is a 50-50 chance of planetary warming exceeding 1.5°C (2.7°F) in the next five years. If we reach that point, 90 percent of coral reefs could die off, extreme heat waves will become nine times more common, and sea levels will rise several feet. Historically, the conversation around climate solutions has focused on decarbonization—reducing fossil fuel use and investing in renewables. Although this is critical, it is not sufficient. Even if we transition to 100 percent clean energy, temperatures will continue to rise unless we also address our unsustainable relationship with nature.

Earth’s forests, grasslands and marshes are natural climate regulators, thanks to the silent miracle of photosynthesis. But when we degrade that land—through deforestation, over-grazing and over-farming—we release the carbon stored in those ecosystems, while reducing their capacity to store future emissions. Already, we have converted 50 percent of all nature to agricultural land, cities, and roads. This is deeply concerning, as intact nature absorbs 25 percent of our carbon emissions from fossil fuel use—that number is falling every year as nature is further degraded. Unsustainable land use and agriculture is the source of approximately one-quarter of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Human-managed lands could be a powerful tool for mitigating 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 first-of-its-kind blueprint for maximizing nature’s climate-stabilizing potential. In this report, we propose a new guiding principle known as the Carbon Law for Nature: To limit planetary warming and keep 1.50C within sight, we must reach net-zero land-sector emissions by 2030, then reach 10 billion tons of annual negative emissions by 2050. No doubt, this is an ambitious target, but we have a realistic plan for achieving it. Our plan does not call for 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 rapidly scaled.

First, protect the carbon-rich ecosystems that remain intact, prioritizing “irrecoverable” places that cannot regrow—eg, the Amazon rainforest and the Congo Basin peatlands—within our lifetimes.

Second, restore high-carbon ecosystems that have already been lost, particularly coastal mangrove forests, peatlands, and rainforests.

Third, we must fix how we manage working lands: farmland, timberland and grazing lands. Roughly 80 percent land-based emissions reductions are contingent on transforming the global food system, the largest driver of deforestation and a major driver of emissions. This transformation must be both top-down and bottom-up—nearly everyone has a role to play. Large corporations must re-examine their supply chains, while financial institutions shift capital away from companies that degrade and destroy and towards those that regenerate and restore. At the same time, governments must use economic incentives to reward good behavior and discourage bad; this includes redirecting subsidies away from heavy industry, investing in climate-smart agriculture and grazing, and passing import restrictions on unsustainable commodities.

At the grassroots level, modest changes by landowners and managers can have enormous aggregate effects. Farmers, for example, can do their part—and improve livelihoods at the same time—by integrating trees into cropland, using fertilizers more efficiently and adopting low-till soil management. If just 20 percent of global forests, farms and pastures switched to greener practices, the climate impact would be akin to removing 1.7 billion automobiles from the road. Notably, many climate-smart agricultural practices will not reduce crop yields—in many cases, they can bolster production by increasing resilience against heat waves and drought.

If all three components of this plan—protection, management, and restoration—are adopted in earnest, they will not only help fight climate change; they will also protect wildlife, reduce disease spillover, promote food and water security and grow rural economies. This is the true potential of bold climate action: A world that is more prosperous, more equitable, and more abundant.

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