Climate Solutions for the 21st Century
Creating low-carbon economies may be one of the most difficult tasks humanity has ever tackled— but the benefits of success will be profound.
A decade ago, when I convened and chaired the U.S.Interior Department’s Climate Change Task Force, we talked about global impacts with the help of models and projections. Today, we don’t need to talk about projections; we can see changes that are happening right now. The ice sheet covering Greenland is melting faster than snowfall can replace it; the summer temperature in Delhi, India, gets hot enough to melt asphalt; and the United States has begun resettling climate refugees from an island in Louisiana being overtaken by the sea.
Climate change presents grave challenges to communities, economies and ecosystems. But at last, the world is addressing climate change head-on. During the Paris climate talks in December, 195 countries, some 700 cities and many companies committed to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming over the next century to well below 2 degrees Celsius. It was a thrilling moment—a highlight for me since I joined The Nature Conservancy in 2013 as the managing director for public policy.
Globally, many leaders now recognize that the costs of limiting emissions and adapting to climate change will be far less than the price of doing nothing. Translating their commitments into action presents opportunities to re-imagine the future of transportation systems, cities, energy systems and the management of lands, waters, coasts, and even oceans. These actions can stabilize the climate—and bring about cleaner air, more reliable energy, more healthful workplaces, and more sustainable land use.
Yet the challenge of achieving these transformations is formidable. Current public and private sector commitments don’t get us nearly far enough toward a truly low-carbon future. Most countries still don’t treat greenhouse gas emissions as pollution, so carbon-emitting fuels remain in high demand. And many places around the globe still have little or no access to energy, driving countries to pursue energy supplies regardless of the effect on climate.
Transforming cities and transportation systems means rethinking building materials, fuels and even city design. And changing land-use practices involves entire supply chains from farm to supermarket and from forest to factory. Such changes require new information—what practices bring what results? They require major research and development investments. And they are going to require smart public policies—like pricing greenhouse gas pollution—so that the decisions of governments, companies and citizens fairly reflect the costs of this pollution.
Conservation has a central role to play in meeting the climate change challenge. Conservancy scientists have shown that natural systems are an essential piece in the puzzle when it comes to slowing global warming. The hundreds of millions of acres of land the Conservancy has helped protect so far for the sake of biodiversity and conservation already store huge amounts of carbon and absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Our scientists estimate that the world’s nations can achieve about one-third of their carbon reduction goals by halting the destruction of forests, grasslands and other critical ecosystems, and by restoring degraded lands to boost their capacity to store carbon. In fact, we simply cannot get to a world of net zero carbon emissions without bringing conservation into the picture.
But conserving and restoring lands and coastal systems cannot be our only strategy. Here in the United States, our goal as conservationists is to champion creative solutions to the climate challenge while ensuring that the path we’re choosing will be sustainable in the long term.
We’ve already seen how the renewable energy industry can provide new job opportunities and give consumers wider energy choices. Back in 1977, every watt produced by solar panels cost about $76. Today, that same watt costs less than 76 cents. In towns across the desert Southwest, it’s hard to spot a new housing subdivision without an array of solar panels gleaming in the sun.
Although renewables are growing fast, they still represent a small fraction of energy supply in the United States and elsewhere. In California, the Conservancy was part of charting the path to expand their use, helping inform the rules for renewable energy targets and develop a trading market for carbon credits (see “Carbon Cache,” page 44). At the same time, we are working closely with energy companies, state governments and federal agencies around the nation to ensure that new utility-scale energy development sites for wind and solar power are located in areas where they can be most effective and not threaten sensitive lands and vulnerable species nearby.
The Conservancy’s team in the Mojave Desert, for instance, mapped potential solar development sites in areas already affected by human activities, keeping unspoiled habitat intact and off-limits to protect threatened species such as the desert tortoise. In places like Kansas’s grasslands and upstate New York, we are helping utilities site wind facilities to get the maximum energy benefit while keeping them out of the critical pathways of migratory birds and bats. And we are bringing this same planning expertise to Latin America, China, Africa and elsewhere.
The shift to smarter, clean energy resources also takes some out-of-the-box thinking. The Conservancy is financing practical science research through its Nature Net Science Fellows program, which provides two-year grants and mentors to recent Ph.D. graduates at leading universities. The program is helping people like scientist Haoran Yang, who is producing nanocrystals to construct a material that can capture waste heat from industrial processes—and someday soon, help convert it back into usable electricity.
Other breakthroughs include improvements in the biofuels field. For a long time, algae production has been studied for its potential to provide sustainable renewable energy, but current production inefficiencies have prevented its use. To address this issue, a NatureNet Fellow working at the University of Pennsylvania and the NASA Ames Research Center in California is looking at how giant clams harvest energy from algae. Scientists are now working to mimic this process with technology that could revolutionize the use of renewable energy from algal biofuels.
We need pioneering science. But we also need to move the needle on low-carbon strategies. Through our 50-state strategy, each of the Conservancy’s local chapters is advancing climate solutions that make sense in that state. In New York, we are working with the state to transform the energy grid into a “smart grid” that better integrates home solar and other renewables. In Connecticut, we are supporting a “green bank” that will finance the use of renewable energy technologies in building projects.
We are also deploying grass-roots approaches to climate threats, working closely with individual landowners. In Louisiana and Arkansas, we are helping farmers put trees back on marginal, unprofitable farmlands, thus mitigating flooding and absorbing more carbon dioxide. In Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern states, we are collaborating with farmers to help reduce fertilizer use—a major source of greenhouse gas emissions—on millions of acres by using farming techniques that improve soil health and increase how much carbon the soil itself can store.
Another critical job for conservation is to help protect communities and infrastructure from extreme temperatures, severe storms and chronic droughts. Although we can slow climate change, we can’t stop it completely, and this is where our nature-based strategies can help communities adapt to changing weather and climate conditions.
In New York City, the Conservancy and its partners have analyzed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and developed a plan to use nature’s solutions—like oyster beds and marshes—in conjunction with built defenses such as seawalls to protect the city from the next major storm event. In Miami, which may be the most climate-threatened major coastal city in the United States, similar analyses are already under way.
We’ve found that combining natural solutions with built infrastructure is often cheaper and more resilient than built infrastructure alone. Our mapping specialists have put together a website, coastalresilience.org, that charts the expected effects of various storm and sea level rise scenarios. That information is being used by city planners and civil engineers along the Gulf Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, and the California and Pacific Northwest coastlines.
Climate action brings dramatic benefits—indeed, the very survival of some communities is at stake. But all the necessary changes require major investments and new financial tools. One threat that cities face under climate change is an increase in pollutant-loaded stormwater flowing into their waterways. In Washington, D.C., we brought together partners and identified investors in an experiment that will use green infrastructure like rain gardens and permeable surfacing to allow more water to be absorbed and cleansed by the soil. In the Seychelles Islands off the eastern coast of Africa, we helped create a debt agreement that gives the government the financial wherewithal to preserve the mangroves and corals that help safeguard citizens from the worst effects of climate change.
We already know the economic consequences of doing nothing to prepare for climate change. Billions of dollars of coastal real estate could be lost to the sea, farms and fisheries will suffer from changing weather patterns, and outdoor workers will be unable to labor under the searing sun. Citigroup has reported that failing to act could cost the global GDP about $44 trillion by 2060.
But if we do act decisively, in the United States alone, clean energy and transportation policies could save us some $250 billion per year simply by reducing the number of premature deaths and healthcare costs associated with air pollution. Beyond reducing long-term costs, taking action to address climate change brings economic opportunities: One estimate pegged the value of the global market for low-carbon goods and services at $5.5 trillion in a 12-month period spanning 2011-2012.
The Nature Conservancy is helping to address climate challenges, using all the tools and expertise at our disposal. If the United States and the rest of the world seize this opportunity to change how we power businesses, feed our people and use our resources, the benefits will be profound: Our air will be cleaner, our cities will be greener, and our economies will be more durable. In the 21st century, those who are passionate about conservation cannot be focused on looking backward at what we’ve lost. Instead, we need to be looking forward, focused on what humanity—and Earth—can gain.