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OPINION: Planting trees cannot be our only solution for climate change

by Jose Maria Ortiz | Palladium
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 08:10 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker lifts a tree from the ground at the Toudunying state-owned commercial forest estate in a village near the edge of the Gobi desert, on the outskirts of Wuwei, Gansu province, China, April 16, 2021

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When we think about preserving nature, many of us envision planting trees - but this is an oversimplification of a much more complicated reality

Jose Maria Ortiz is managing director of impact investment and growth at Palladium

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear: if we want to avoid the dangerous warming of our atmosphere and keep the world under 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must make immediate emissions reductions across all sectors.

Beyond a reduction of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, we must also preserve nature. It’s the only short-term solution we currently have in the race to achieve net zero, until the technology for processes like carbon capture can catch up.

When we think about preserving nature, many of us envision planting trees, but this is an oversimplification of a much more complicated reality. While the world’s forests store about 861 gigatonnes of carbon (equivalent to nearly a century’s worth of our current annual fossil fuel emissions), these forests are vulnerable and dwindling due to rampant deforestation and the effects of climate change.

What we also need to be preserving are the many ecosystems that act as carbon sinks (those natural assets that absorb and store carbon) and keep emissions from leaking into our atmosphere in the first place. Of the many ecosystems on the planet, it is wetlands, not forests, that store the most tonnes of carbon per hectare.

So, if not by planting trees, how do we preserve the ecosystems – like wetlands – that we need most?

The answer is by making it financially attractive for investors and businesses to preserve them, and by engaging the communities that live in and around these ecosystems in a way that benefits them and future generations.

There is monetary value in preserving nature on land and at sea, and it isn’t just through carbon business models (like the sale of carbon credits).

It can be through a combination of revenue streams that include carbon, biodiversity, and other ecosystems services. There are carbon-free businesses like non-timber forest products, sustainable forestry, eco-tourism, energy production, and other sustainable value chains that can mean both profit and preservation.

But many believe our natural ecosystems should remain entirely untouched. This unnecessarily pits those looking for solutions to climate change against the communities who depend on these ecosystems for their lives and livelihoods.

Instead, I believe there’s a way to split the difference – to preserve nature while sustainably using natural assets in a way that benefits the ecosystem itself, investors, and the community that calls it home.

In Australia, for example, the government is investing AUD 3 billion in the Reef 2050 Plan, which will support a Reef Credit Scheme that will quantify the work landholders undertake to reduce pollutants entering the reef without compromising the productivity of their land.

The hope is that the scheme will create a new environmental market where supply and demand will drive investment into improving and protecting the water quality of the reef, with profitable returns for producers.

These producers, many of whom are farmers and livestock suppliers, will have the opportunity to improve their practices to launch products like carbon-free beef (as Coles, one of the biggest supermarket chains in Australia, has done). It is not about stopping beef production, but doing it better while preserving and restoring nature.

In Colombia, we’re piloting the first ever “habitat bank” – private conservation and restoration sites that generate biodiversity credits, which can be sold to project developers to offset major infrastructure impact.

For every 500 hectares of habitat bank established, at least 24 new jobs are created through conservation and restoration activities. These banks protect land for 30 years under contracts with landowners and allows the development of complementary business in the natural tourism space, apiculture, and other non-timber forest products.

While these and other examples indicate some progress, it’s not enough. We need more projects, and quickly, that preserve and restore ecosystems to act as carbon sinks.

The IPCC says it’s ‘now or never’ to move towards a low-carbon economy. I say, now more than ever, that we must make bold investments in nature to compensate for our inability to phase out fossil fuels quickly enough.

Small-scale interventions aren’t enough. It’s time to take risks, because the alternative is clear – increasing temperatures with devastating effects for all.