Nature’s Solution to Climate Change

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

To be clear, it’s only part of the solution, but it’s a significant part, we already know how to do it, and the side effects are probably almost entirely positive. What am I talking about? “Restoration of the biosphere”: large-scale restoration of land that has been partly or wholly deforested, together with the cessation of ongoing deforestation.

It’s easy to show that large-scale restoration has the potential to remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thereby actually reverse climate change and its impacts, at least to some extent.  Estimates vary as to exactly how much carbon dioxide could be removed this way, but it’s clear that it’s enough to make a difference.  And that’s good, because the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that even complete abandonment of fossil fuels by 2100 might not be enough to keep global warming within the oft-cited 2-degree target.  (That means keeping the globally-averaged temperature within 2 degrees Celsius of its natural value.)  Here at WHRC we’ve pointed out many times that two degrees might not be the best target, but it’s the most widely discussed one, and meeting it is certainly better than not meeting it.  Large-scale restoration of the biosphere could help meet this and other climate-change mitigation goals.

If this is so great, why aren’t we doing it more aggressively? The main barrier is that economies place a higher value on other uses of land. A landowner can make more money farming, for example, than by devoting land to forest, even though the forest might have more value to humanity as a whole. Mechanisms like the United Nations’ “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation,” known as REDD+, seek to address this market failure by paying landowners to preserve existing forests.  It’s encouraging that the final terms of REDD+ were worked out this month in Bonn after 10 years of negotiation.  But REDD+ is a relatively small-scale program, and as the name suggests, it’s primary focus is to halt—not reverse—deforestation.

So we have a long way to go.  Here at the WHRC, we’re working both to improve understanding of “nature’s solution to climate change,” and to bring this important tool to the attention of national and international policymakers. I spent last week in London meeting with others working along these lines, and it’s encouraging to see momentum growing around this under-appreciated idea.