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Many economists and policy advisors ignore the potential of natural climate solutions at our peril
A recent report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which advises European Union states, caused something of a furore in climate change circles by attacking the potential of so-called “negative emissions technologies”. These aim to suck unwanted greenhouse gas emissions out of the sky. The report was right to question the feasibility of many of these technologies. But the authors were wrong to downplay natural climate solutions – better management of forests and agricultural land – which many experts increasingly see as essential to preventing dangerous climate change.
This was short-sighted. Natural climate solutions are in fact the world’s oldest negative emissions technology. By managing carbon dioxide-hungry forests and agricultural lands better, we can remove vast quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in trees and soils. The latest evidence is that natural climate solutions can provide 37 percent of cost-effective carbon dioxide mitigation needed through 2030 for us to have a good chance of holding global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius this century.
More and more governments are directing investment towards natural climate solutions, and with good reason: they are cheap. They are simple to implement, generally requiring a change in behaviour around how the carbon in forests and agricultural soils is managed. There is also no shortage of companies offering high tech solutions in the sector that make this even easier to do.
Most of these are in the emerging “nature tech” sector. There are already hundreds of companies which have entered the business of planting trees to restore degraded and deforested lands. Capital has flowed from private equity, venture capital and impact investors, among others.
The Amsterdam-based Land Life Company aims to restore some of the two billion hectares of degraded land worldwide with its ‘Cocoon’ planting technology which it claims can cut the cost of tree planting by 90 percent. EcoPlanet Bamboo from Illinois is establishing bamboo plantations on degraded land, disrupting traditional supply chains of timber and fibre sources.
Nature tech companies also have a role to play in maintaining and restoring soil quality. In Brazil, Agrosatélite produces geographic mapping tools that assist with planning agricultural production in tandem with conservation, while Applied GeoSolutions in the United States uses remote sensing and soil bio-geochemical models to develop high-resolution analyses of carbon stock changes in the soil.
The EASAC report does highlight the importance of one natural climate solution – reducing deforestation. This is often the cheapest way to cut net carbon emissions and involves preventing the conversion of forest carbon stocks for logging, agriculture or urban development. Reducing deforestation is certainly important, but reforestation will also be necessary to achieve the level of carbon dioxide mitigation needed. Contrary to what the EASAC report suggests, here is no trade-off between the two. In fact, well-managed reforestation can actually help countries slow or halt deforestation.
Here too we see the emergence of new entrepreneurial companies like Planet Labs, which uses a constellation of miniature satellites to continuously scan the Earth, beaming down a stream of open-source data that can be used to monitor for deforestation. Orbital Insight, another U.S. company, uses specially developed software to source and analyse huge amounts of data about the state of the planet from drones, balloons and satellites.
There are also demand-side negative emissions technologies that the EASCA report did not examine. New engineered construction materials like cross-laminated timber (CLT) for example, are increasingly used in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States. Europe is a leader in these technologies with companies like Massivholz, Binderholz and Stora Enso. CLT is stronger than steel or concrete and permanently locks up carbon in timber buildings. Replacing half of the steel, concrete and brick used globally with CLT and similar technologies could avoid as much as 3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions per year.
The climate community has come a long way to make a strong case for radical transformation of the energy system. But there is no single, simple solution to climate change. It is easy to dismiss land use as the most complicated, least certain option. Many economists and policy advisors do not have a detailed grasp of the trade-offs involved. And they ignore the potential of natural climate solutions at our peril.
Justin Adams is managing director for global lands at The Nature Conservancy