Interview

Q+A: Natural climate solutions could reverse emissions in 30 tropical countries, scientists say

Interview with Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom
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A small green bird perches on a leafy branch. The bird and the leaves are the same color.
A bird in Danum Valley Field Center. Sabah, Malaysia. CIFOR/Greg Girard

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United States - Although natural climate solutions offer one of the best climate mitigation opportunities, they are as yet under-represented in national climate action plans in the U.N. Paris Agreement process, according to new research.

Better land management strategies could help more than 30 tropical countries meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, said the authors of a paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences journal.

Tropical forests, peatlands, mangroves and coastal wetlands store massive amounts of carbon released as climate-warming gases when fragile ecosystems are dismantled.

“Our new research clarifies that if most tropical countries are to meet and even surpass our shared goal of carbon neutrality by mid-century, a priority focus should be preserving, restoring, and better managing these carbon-dense ecosystems,” said Bronson Griscom, senior director of Natural Climate Solutions for Conservation International.

Overall, 20 countries hold 80 percent of tropical cost-effective natural climate solution potential, and four major tropical forest countries – Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Indonesia – hold 53 percent of tropical cost-effective potential, the paper said.

The study builds on Griscom’s widely cited research from 2017, which says that natural climate solutions can provide a third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

MEETING TARGETS

NDCs are a key part of the Paris Agreement strategy to prevent post-industrial average temperatures from rising to 1.5 degrees Celsius or higher. Each country is required to provide data on greenhouse gas emissions and reductions targets it aims to meet post-2020.

Under current pledges the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports with high confidence that global warming is expected to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, even if they are supplemented with substantial increases in the scale and ambition of mitigation after 2030, according to the 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

According to Griscom’s new research, through better stewardship of forests, peatlands, mangroves and coastal wetlands, half of medium and large tropical countries could see their national emissions cut by 50 percent. The use of 12 cost-effective natural climate solutions in 79 tropical countries could reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire annual emissions of the United States.

In half of tropical countries, cost effective natural climate solutions could mitigate more than 50 percent of their individual greenhouse gas emissions, and in more than a quarter that potential is greater than their emissions, the paper states.

TAKING ACTION

For the study, which led to the development of a database to help countries meet their goals, the researchers analyzed more than 100 tropical countries, identifying 12 actions that could lead to climate-beneficial sustainable land management.

Recommended actions fall into three major categories: protection of native ecosystems, restoration of native ecosystems, and improved management of lands used for such purposes as food, fiber, and fuel production.

Griscom shared the following insights with Forests News:

Q: What inspired this research and what do you hope it achieves?   

A: “While many countries have set and are updating, important NDCs to the Paris Agreement, many countries do not have a clear understanding of how to achieve those contributions. This study is intended to provide countries in the tropics — where natural climate solutions tend to contribute a particularly large portion of NDC opportunities — to clarify the role of natural climate solutions in their NDCs.  We also hope this study will help both non-governmental organizations, foundations, and private sector investors to better understand opportunities and needs to invest in natural climate solutions in ways that can transform economies.”

Q: The study says that tropical regions release the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of environmental degradation and destruction, yet these areas have the greatest carbon storage potential. Why do these areas provide the most potential at highest risk?

A: “Yes, these are the times. A century or more ago, it was temperate ecosystems that were at the highest risk, but now the frontiers of the most active human development have shifted to the tropics, which hold both the greatest carbon in plant biomass, and the greatest biodiversity, due to the tropical climate which makes these regions the world’s greatest engines of life.”

Q: “Carbon neutrality” has been a kind of buzz term, but you point out that some countries could become carbon negative nations. Should this be the aim of all nations and is it achievable? Will the new database help with this?

A: “I doubt it is feasible for all nations to be carbon negative by mid-century – for example, major oil production nations with low natural climate solution potential – but it certainly is feasible, and beneficial, for many of the tropical countries we identify to do so. So, achieving carbon negativity – net carbon sinks – should be the aim of the countries we highlight, and it should be supported by international financial resources, as part of delivering both national green development outcomes, and global ambition to achieve the Paris Agreement, since we know that many other nations are likely to fall short of carbon neutrality goals.”

Q: Nature-based climate solutions are considered cost effective. Why is that?

A: “Natural climate solutions are less expensive than many engineered alternatives for removing carbon from the atmosphere, hence, as society increasingly expects companies to meet climate performance goals, natural climate solutions are an option for delivering greater climate outcomes for a given investment in the near term.”

Q: Do nature-based restoration solutions put the onus on companies or governments?  

A: “Both companies and governments can and should invest in natural climate solutions.  We all must act in concert now; we can no longer wait for governments to lead in every country.  There are major opportunities for companies to invest in natural climate solutions even without government action – in particular companies can invest in “improved management of working lands” forms of natural climate solutions, as this is all about improving sustainable business models for systems that deliver our global commodities.”

Q: In the past year, since the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius, we seem to have seen an uptick in activity on climate. Yet teen activist Greta Thunberg says that no one is actually doing anything. Do you think this is having an impact on activities in the landscape?

A: “I think Greta is inspiring action. And I agree there has been an uptick in much needed action on climate change.”

Q: At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Britain’s heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles officially launched a “Building Sustainable Markets Council,” urges consideration of natural capital costs in market activities. Does this idea fit with your research? Or what are you proposing financiers and economists do?

A: “Yes, this idea is aligned with our research. Our research does not propose highly specific market and financial investment solutions, rather our research identifies the places and types of natural climate solutions where new carbon markets, and private sector investments, can find large opportunities.  We encourage a wide range of both public and private financial investment approaches and market solutions to unlock natural climate solutions.”

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