According to a new report from Conservation International, preventing extreme levels of warming in the coming years depends as much on how we protect, manage and restore natural ecosystems, as in phasing out fossil fuels.
The organization’s “Exponential Roadmap: Natural Climate Solutions” seeks to formalize a new “carbon law” for nature, to be adopted by governments around the world, that calls for the land sector to become net zero by 2030 and then represent a huge emissions sink by 2050.
The report sets a transition framework with concrete actions by region, timelines for net zero and beyond in the land sector, and specific investment priorities that, together, can prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
“We need to speed up solutions,” Mike Woolsen, the report’s lead for Conservation International, told Global Citizen. “We will only do this if we focus on the people on the ground delivering change and identify what motivates them, what they need, and what solutions they need to implement or are available in their toolkit.
“And then how are the actors – governments, the financial sector, businesses, social movements – changing conditions on our planet and expectations,” he added. “What can these favorable conditions provide for people on Earth to change?”
Countries around the world have a dysfunctional relationship with the natural world, which leads to overexploitation of resources, polluting habitats, and destruction of wildlife. Fueled by the global economy’s short-term obsession with growth, this approach not only undermines the health and well-being of societies, it is 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 outstripped the industrial forces spurring deforestation, the widespread use of pesticides, and monocultures that rapidly degrade soil conditions and strip the land of its ability to maintain healthy ecosystems that would absorb carbon.
The breadth of the current system can make it sound as if only a collapse would change the status quo, but the Conservation International report shows empirically that if the different parties coordinate along specific “courses of action,” the needed transformations can happen faster than expected.
The report identifies eight courses of action – supply chains not deforestation; climatically important protected areas; Rights and Resources of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC); climate-smart forestry; climate-smart grazing; climate smart agriculture; shift diet and food waste; and restoring forests and wetlands – and describes how both can be achieved if “enabling actors” support people on the ground.
Among these courses of action, climate-smart forestry, pastoralism, and agriculture have the greatest potential to reduce emissions.
“We’re undermining nature’s ability to absorb emissions,” Woolusen said. “And we need to change that. We need to completely reverse that so that our interactions with nature, our use of managed lands, and also our expansion of managed lands into currently neutral lands are mirrored. It has to become renewable, it has to become regenerated. We need to start getting fields. And the forests and farms we use to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We know how to do it, but we need to speed up actions to make it happen.”
While each course of action involves specific opportunities and challenges, they are interconnected.
For example, climate-smart forestry depends on extending “no deforestation” protections to include more goods sourced from forests. Palm oil cultivation, which has historically been a major 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 occurred across all other commodity classes — including cocoa, paper, soybeans, pastures, rubber and coffee — forests around the world would receive greater protection.
Opportunities for improving forest management are highest in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, which has seen an increase in deforestation under Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Woolusen noted that Brazil’s history contains a promising model for deforestation reduction. Between 2004 and 2010, a combination of private and public policies helped halve rates of deforestation. Similar cooperation—along with expanded protections for indigenous communities living in the Amazon rainforest—could help control deforestation once again.
Woolusen emphasized the role that ordinary people can play in facilitating carbon law simply by reducing their meat consumption and supporting sustainable meat production.
“There are grasslands that are being preserved and the carbon in those grasslands is being improved through good practices in grazing livestock or grazing animals,” he said. “If we’re able to relate to these kinds of producers, whether they’re, you know, a community doing the right thing that they’ve been doing for hundreds of years or being farmers in Montana that’s changed from intensive grazing to intentional grazing, the rotational grazing system that helps the land recover, helps on enriching soil carbon, then we can connect these producers to global supply chains.Then consumption [of meat] It becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
The report showcases many of these win-win solutions that can empower communities, protect their landscapes, and mitigate climate change.
For example, using technology to improve water and fertilizer use can save farmers money, reduce emissions, and reduce stress on local ecosystems.
“We continue to find these opportunities, and as we connect them to social science and economics, we are finding ways that they can become self-sustaining and can really start to scale,” Woolusen said. “It gives me great hope.”