Preventing extreme levels of temperature rise in the years ahead depends as much on how we protect, manage, and restore natural ecosystems as it does on phasing out fossil fuels, according to a new report by Conservation International.
The organization’s “Exponential Roadmap: Natural Climate Solutions” seeks to formalize a new “carbon law” for nature, to be adopted by governments worldwide, that calls for the land sector to become net zero by 2030 and then a megasink for emissions by 2050.
The report lays out a transitional framework with concrete actions by region, timelines for reaching net zero and beyond in the land sector, and specific investment priorities that, together, can keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
“We need to accelerate solutions,” Mike Wolosin, Conservation International’s lead on the report, told Global Citizen. “We're only going to do that if we focus on the people on the ground who are delivering change and identifying what is motivating them, what they need, what solutions they need to implement or have available in their toolkit.
“And then how the enabling actors — the governments, the finance sector, the businesses, the social movements — are changing the conditions on our planet and expectations,” he added. “What can those enabling conditions provide to the people on the ground so that they change?”
Countries worldwide have a dysfunctional relationship to the natural world, overexploiting resources, polluting habitats, and destroying wildlife. Not only is this approach, fueled by the global economy’s short-term obsession with growth, undermining the health and well-being of communities, it’s also fueling the climate crisis. Currently, degraded land environments release 12.5 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere annually, which is roughly a quarter of all emissions.
Food production, in particular, has been overtaken by industrial forces that incentivize deforestation, widespread pesticide use, and monoculture farming that rapidly degrades soil conditions and strips the land of its ability to maintain healthy ecosystems that would otherwise absorb carbon.
The vastness of the current system can make it seem like only collapse will change the status quo, but Conservation International’s report pragmatically shows that if different parties coordinate along specific “action tracks,” then the needed transformations can occur faster than might be expected.
The report outlines eight action tracks — no-deforestation supply chains; climate-critical protected areas; Indigenous peoples and local communities’ (IPLC) rights and resources; climate-smart forestry; climate-smart grazing; climate-smart farming; diet shift and food waste; and forest and wetland restoration — and describes how each can be achieved if “enabling actors” support the people on the ground.
Among these action tracks, climate-smart forestry, grazing, and farming hold the most potential for reducing emissions.
“We are undermining nature's capacity to absorb emissions,” Wolosin said. “And we need to shift that around. We need to completely reverse that so that our interactions with nature, our use of managed lands, but also our expansion of managed lands into currently net-neutral lands needs to reverse. It needs to become regenerative, it needs to become restorative. We need to start getting the fields and forests and farms that we use to be part of the solution instead of the part of the problem. And we know how to do that, but we need to accelerate the actions to deliver it.”
While each action track entails specific opportunities and challenges, they’re interconnected.
For example, climate-smart forestry depends on expanding “no-deforestation” protections to more commodities sourced from forests. Palm oil cultivation, historically a leading driver of deforestation, is increasingly regulated in ways that protect forests. This shift was largely driven by public pressure in the form of consumer boycotts. Now, people are willing to pay more for sustainably sourced palm oil, which ends up funding conservation efforts.
If similar shifts occur throughout other commodity categories — including cocoa, paper, soy, pasture, rubber, and coffee — then forests worldwide would receive greater protections.
Opportunities for improved forest management are highest in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, which has seen a surge in deforestation under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.
Wolosin noted that Brazil’s history contains a promising model for lowering deforestation. Between 2004 and 2010, a mix of private and public policies helped to more than halve deforestation rates. Similar cooperation — along with expanded protections for Indigenous communities living in the Amazon rainforest — can help to get deforestation under control again.
Wolosin stressed the role that everyday people can play in facilitating the Carbon Law by simply reducing their meat consumption and supporting sustainable meat production.
“There are grasslands that are maintained and the carbon in those grasslands is improved by good practices in grazing cattle or herding animals,” he said. “If we are able to connect those types of producers, be they, you know, a community doing the right thing that they've been doing for hundreds of years or being a farmer in Montana that's changed from extensive grazing to a more intentional, rotational grazing system that helps the earth recover, helps the soil carbon get enriched, then we can connect those producers to global supply chains. Then the consumption [of meat] becomes part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
The report features many of these win-win-win solutions that can empower communities, protect landscapes, and mitigate climate change.
For instance, using technology to improve water and fertilizer use can save farmers money, reduce emissions, and put less strain on local ecosystems.
“We keep finding these opportunities and as we're linking them to social science and economics we're finding ways that they can become self-perpetuating and can actually start to scale,” Wolosin said. “And that gives me great hope."