Land and the Climate Equation
To slow climate change, we must emit less carbon. Technology will get us part of the way—but protecting and restoring nature will be critical.
An essay from "The Future of Conservation," a series exploring how nature can help tackle the most pressing challenges facing people and the planet.
Twenty years ago, long before I joined The Nature Conservancy, I was already searching for solutions to climate change. Initially, I was a clean-tech entrepreneur. Then I became a senior executive for BP’s $8 billion alternative- energy business. My job at BP was to develop and invest in a portfolio of alternative-energy technologies and solutions, looking at all possibilities that could help the company produce clean energy and reduce carbon emissions.
One innovative project was at In Salah, a city in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Algeria. Outside the city, about a mile underground, BP was pumping carbon dioxide from natural gas development into a massive rock formation, to keep this greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. The project was a pioneering investment in carbon capture and storage technology. At In Salah we proved that such technology could work, but it was expensive and, as I later came to see it, one-dimensional.
By contrast, I also built a portfolio of an entirely different kind of project—investing in forests. One such project was being run by The Nature Conservancy in the tropical forests of Bolivia, near Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. BP and two other energy companies in 1996 had given the Conservancy money to buy up logging rights on land adjacent to the park. Instead of the forests being cut—the likely outcome if the Conservancy hadn’t stepped in—the area was added to the park, expanding it from 1.8 million acres to 3.9 million. Not only would the trees remain standing—which meant no carbon would be emitted from forest destruction—but they would all keep growing. And as every schoolchild knows, trees absorb carbon dioxide.
This was one of the world’s first large-scale attempts to use nature to help solve the climate challenge. In 2005, the Noel Kempff project was certified by an independent agency as helping to avoid more than 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions. By 2026, the forests there will have prevented 5.8 million metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Unlike In Salah, the forest project was relatively inexpensive. And it did much more than simply absorb carbon. Plants and animals thrived. Local residents got jobs as park rangers and ecotourism guides. The project partners even helped indigenous residents secure title to their traditional lands.
The Noel Kempff project was far from perfect, but it explains why I am now working on land use for a conservation organization: Nature offers so many opportunities to address climate change, and each one comes with myriad secondary benefits that help people.
Cutting down forests, plowing under prairies and the like not only emit carbon but also reduce the planet’s overall capacity to store carbon. Consider the protected forests at Noel Kempff. Measured by weight, each tree consists of roughly 50 percent carbon, which is stored in roots, trunks, branches and leaves. The carbon-storage capacity gets larger as each tree grows. If we cut the trees, the living tissues decompose and the stored carbon is emitted. That’s bad for the climate. But it’s doubly bad because those cut trees will no longer absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We lose net storage capacity.
Humans have already altered almost half of Earth’s land surface to make way for cropland, pasture and commercial forestry. The effect on the global climate has been profound. In 2010, the clearing of forests, savannas and other ecosystems accounted for 12 percent of global carbon emissions. The use of fertilizers and methane emissions from livestock accounted for another 13 percent. And about one-quarter of the world’s converted land—land used for agriculture, industry and so on—doesn’t produce as much food or store as much carbon as it could.
If these numbers paint a dire picture, they also provide a blueprint to reversing our climate crisis.
To limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century—as nations agreed to do in the recent Paris Accords—we must, by 2030, reduce annual emissions from a projected 70 gigatons of carbon dioxide down to about 40 gigatons. The Conservancy’s scientists estimate that nations can achieve about a third of the reduction needed in the next critical decade by protecting and restoring nature and its carbon storage capacity.
This requires three basic strategies: Protect natural lands from development where appropriate. Restore degraded lands so they absorb more carbon. And implement the most productive and sustainable methods on land that is already in cultivation. Many of these natural climate solutions, as we call them, would cost less than $10 per metric ton of carbon to implement—much less than some of the industrial and technological fixes now being developed.
The Conservancy is pursuing strategies like these across the globe. Incorporating lessons from Noel Kempff, we have launched forest-carbon projects in Louisiana, California, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. These projects absorb carbon, create sustainable jobs and ensure that indigenous communities get a say in how their traditional lands are used.
In other places, restoring degraded lands can help the climate. In Australia’s northern tropical savannas, for example, the setting of small fires early in the dry season—an indigenous practice—was largely abandoned after European settlement. Today, devastating wildfires devour the parched vegetation during the late dry season—fires that emit significant amounts of carbon. But the Conservancy has been working with several indigenous communities across northern Australia to set controlled fires early, before vegetation gets too dry. The resulting patchy, less-intense burns safely restore habitat for small mammals and birds, and they emit less carbon.
At one ranch, called the Fish River Station, the indigenous rangers have reduced the amount of land charred by wildfires from an average of 36 percent a year to just 1 percent. Since 2010, the project has cut annual carbon emissions nearly in half while helping to maintain a healthy savanna.
Conservationists also can partner with farmers and ranchers to manage working landscapes in ways that reduce carbon emissions. Research suggests that the world’s cultivated soils used to hold much more carbon— perhaps as much as 50 to 70 percent more—than they store today. The science is still evolving, but some of that carbon-storage capacity can be restored by adopting conservation-oriented practices, such as planting cover crops on fallow agricultural fields.
I recently saw this in action while touring the Midwest. I joined a group visiting a pioneering Iowa farmer, Tim Smith, who is working with the Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to demonstrate what’s possible when farmers focus on soil health. We looked at fields that had been traditionally tilled and kept “square and bare” after harvest as generations of farmers have learned to do. On other fields, Smith had planted cover crops or practiced conservation tillage, where more crop residue is left in the ground. More carbon is retained in these soils. They also absorb water more quickly and retain water better. Such soils reduce the nutrient-laden runoff that emits greenhouse gases and pollutes rivers, lakes and oceans. These practices can also deliver higher returns for the farmer and, planned correctly, can get more production off the same acreage.
Ultimately, we will need farmers, ranchers, foresters and indigenous communities on board if we are to bring natural climate solutions to bear on a meaningful scale. The conservation movement can’t achieve the necessary scale on its own.
Yet I’ve seen firsthand how partnerships can make these types of solutions possible. A few months ago, I visited the Dayak village of Merabu in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province. After a long canoe ride upriver, I met the village chief, a 28-year-old dynamo in flipflops and trousers named Franly Oley. He showed me a three-dimensional map that the Conservancy had helped him create, detailing the region’s veins of forest woven between limestone karst pinnacles. Armed with these maps, Merabu had gained legal title to nearly 20,000 acres of forest that had been under threat from the expansion of palm oil plantations. This forest could have been destroyed. Instead, it stands, storing carbon dioxide every day. The Conservancy has worked with partners on similar efforts with more than 20 villages in this part of Indonesia and plans to help hundreds more in the coming years.
Land conservation has been part of the Conservancy’s mission for some 65 years, during which time we have protected hundreds of millions of acres around the world. It’s exciting to realize that expanding our efforts can also solve a substantial portion of the climate challenge. Unlike any generation before us, we have the scientific and economic tools to analyze how to manage our natural resources in a more sustainable way. Ours is the generation that can actually begin to restore the planet on a significant scale.