“A geo-engineering solution, but without any of the risk.” That’s how Jeff Seabright, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer, described nature’s role in carbon mitigation at the Business & Climate Summit 2016 in London.
We all know meeting the world’s new commitment to limit global warming below 2 degrees C is going to be an uphill climb. And we all know we won’t get there without shifting global energy use to near zero emissions levels by mid-century. But, what many still don’t understand is that even with the needed energy shift, we still won’t get there without also maximizing nature’s carbon storage capability. Indeed, as we sit here today, nature is the sleeping giant in solving climate change.
Nature’s time is now
In particular, nature’s set of solutions are uniquely positioned to help us dramatically reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide during the next 15 years, as we continue to solve for longer-term energy transformation. All told, nature-based solutions for sequestering carbon, such as avoiding forest loss, reforestation, investing in soil health and coastal ecosystem restoration, can bring us more than a third of the way to emission reductions needed by 2030. A biological bridge to a zero carbon future.
This opportunity is significantly larger than we previously imagined. And, crucially, many of the options come at a substantially lower cost – less than $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide – than higher tech sequestration solutions that run $100 per tonne and beyond. But nature’s vast potential today is not the only cause for urgency. The threat to nature’s continued potential is the other side of the same coin: the less we harness today, the less we will be able to harness tomorrow.
Multiple pathways, multiple opportunities
To that point, a core piece of natural climate solutions is about building on the multiple decades of work to reduce tropical forest destruction. If tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter. But, avoiding deforestation is in fact one of nearly two-dozen distinct nature-based pathways across forests, agricultural and grasslands, and wetlands. The solutions represent three core strategies: protecting key ecosystems, transforming how we use working lands, and restoring ecosystems on a massive scale.
While we have experience implementing each of these interventions on limited scale, the big question now is how to motivate the global community to begin rightly viewing these solutions as they view other crucial energy policy and technology fixes.
This question was at the core of the Tropical Forest Alliance panel at this week’s summit in London. The event, convened by The Climate Group and We Mean Business, with support from the International Chamber of Commerce, World Economic Forum and others, brought together leaders from business, government and finance to focus on how businesses can support and benefit from the shift to a zero carbon economy.
Business leaders on the panel spoke of both the risks of ignoring nature’s role – but also the opportunities in creating a new development paradigm. Seabright pointed to Unilever’s preferential commodity sourcing pledge—from those countries and regions with ambitious climate and forestry initiatives. Emmanuelle Wargon from Danone explained how their joint-venture fund with Mars, the Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming, measures social and environmental returns alongside economic ones. Olam’s Chris Brett outlined how an innovative financial mechanism – a sale / leaseback scheme – was driving good land-use management practices in Gabon.
From policy to private sector action
Since Paris, the international policy signals toward a low-carbon economy are irrefutable. But, as discussions at the summit underscored, national governments and the private sector now need to work together to act immediately.
In the context of natural climate solutions—the focus of my participation at the London summit—there are signals of progress to point to as well, such as the fact that land-based climate solutions appear in over 75 percent of individual country commitments to the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture has initiated 10 building blocks for transforming domestic agriculture, including ramping up improved soil management practices for better soil health and increased soil carbon storage capacity. Then there’s Brazil’s Forest Code and Indonesia’s One Map Policy, which are serving as models for how tropical forest nations can embrace their vital role in global climate action. And an increasing number of multi-lateral companies, such as the ones engaged at this week’s London summit, are committing to net zero deforestation in their supply chains through agreements such as the New York Declaration on Forests launched in 2014.
But these actions still only amount to a taste of the full potential for natural climate solutions if given full cross-sector attention. We must get creative in setting policies with governments that will spur the private sector to follow at a transformational scale, just as we have by incentivizing the renewable energy movement.
Capitalizing on co-benefits
One of the ways to break through traditional barriers – and mindsets – of financing natural climate solutions is to join their climate mitigation benefits with other crucial co-benefits that they provide, such as improved food production, more secure drinking water and stronger protection from storms and climate impacts. This approach can unlock a more diverse groups of investors and stakeholders – such as major water users and managers, food and beverage companies, and insurance and engineering industries – who are interested in business and sustainability solutions beyond climate mitigation alone.
An example at the climate and water security nexus is water funds. This market-based tool gathers investments from water users in major population centers and directs the funding toward conservation of upstream lands – often working lands – that filter and regulate the downstream supply. Many of the specific activities that these funds support for improved water quality – including reforestation, forest protection, and improved agricultural practices – are also some of the most powerful individual pathways for nature-based carbon mitigation.
The recent Urban Water Blueprint report by The Nature Conservancy, found these solutions can improve water quality for more than 700 million people globally and reduce treatment costs for cities and utilities. The return on investment picture will only strengthen as we better account for the carbon storage benefits of these interventions.
The bottom line is that businesses and governments can and must do more than focus solely on the critical global energy shift. Nature-based solutions are the other essential piece of the puzzle. And nature’s time is now. Simply put, nature is this decade’s most important climate solution.