We are at a critical point for the future of the planet.
We have years, not decades, to address the interconnected crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. What we do between now and 2030 will determine whether we slow warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—the level scientists agree will avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fortunately, science shows that natural climate solutions can deliver up to a third of the emission reductions we need by 2030.
What are natural climate solutions?
Natural climate solutions are conservation, restoration and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe. Combined with innovations in clean energy and other efforts to decarbonize the world’s economies, natural climate solutions offer some of our best options in the response to climate change.
Research led by The Nature Conservancy and 15 other institutions*, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that nature-based solutions can provide up to 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C—30% more than previously estimated.
The framework of this study distills nature’s full climate potential into 20 mitigation pathways. The pathways span three biomes—forests, grasslands (including agricultural lands and rangelands) wetlands (including peatlands, seagrass and mangroves) and climate reduction practices based on conservation, restoration and land management.
Their mitigation potential is evaluated under three economic scenarios:
- no economic restraints for implementation
- realistic costs for achieving climate goals of <2°C-degree warming
- only low-cost implementation opportunities
Read our case studies to learn more about natural climate solutions in different geographies and land-use sectors.
*Institutions: Department of Biology, James Madison University; Woods Hole Research Center; Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, Ohio State University; Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; TerraCarbon LLC; Resources for the Future; Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen; College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University; Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Brazil; Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory & Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Colorado State University; World Resources Institute; Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (Australia); Laestadius Consulting LLC; College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota; Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland; Department of Biology, University of Florida; Wetlands International; Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont
Nature’s Make or Break Potential for Climate Change
This study shows we’ve been underestimating nature’s role in tackling climate change.
Community Mangrove Conservation in Madagascar
For those who live in and around Bay of Assassins on the southwest coast of Madagascar, mangroves are life. They provide food to eat, lumber for houses, jobs for local residents, especially women, and protection from storm surge and sea-level rise. But because of these many uses, along with other threats, mangroves are being lost to deforestation and degradation at alarming rates.
But the mangrove forests aren’t just valuable to the locals in Madagascar. Because of their extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon—sometimes up to four times more per unit area than terrestrial forests—mangroves have value on the international carbon market.
“If this value can be realized and transferred to the people whose livelihoods depend on the exploitation of mangroves, this benefit has the potential to be an incentive for sustainable, locally-led mangrove management,” says Lalao Aigrette, project coordinator for the non-profit Blue Ventures.
In the Bay of Assassins, Blue Ventures is leading a mangrove carbon project called Tahiry Honko, which means “preserving mangroves for sustainable use for future generations.” The project promotes reforestation, the creation of mangrove protected areas, and improved regulations to ensure sustainable use. Importantly, it generates jobs for the local community that aren’t based on the exploitation of mangroves.
Women’s associations and the youth of the community are central to the project. Women are trained to participate in the carbon monitoring activities, as well as reforestation, and robust youth programs insure that everyone understands the importance of mangroves for future generations. These groups are building scientific and technical capacity to account for the amount of carbon stored in Madagascar’s mangrove forests, ‘blue forests’,
The financial benefits from the sale of carbon credits through Plan Vivo will benefit the entire community and will go toward funding much needed community infrastructure like schools, wells and solar electricity.
By engaging local management associations in project planning, management and monitoring, safeguards are being put in place to ensure coastal communities participate meaningfully in blue carbon and gain an equitable share of the benefits.
Aboriginal Carbon Farming in Australia
Indigenous groups in Australia have found one of the best ways to mitigate carbon emissions from their lands is by setting fire to it. Land managers deploy a program of prescribed burning early in the dry season to pre-empt larger, more intense wildfires late in the season, which result in considerably more greenhouse gas emissions, as well as threats to human health and prosperity and the unique biodiversity of northern Australia.
Indigenous groups in Australia managed their country with fire for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans after which this practice diminished.In more recent times there has been a return to these traditional burning practices with a major boost occurring in 2012 when the government approved the use of savanna burning as a source of carbon credits. The sale of these carbon credits creates a funding stream for conservation work and an increase in economic stability for many indigenous groups, says Rowan Foley, who founded the Aboriginal Carbon Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the buying and selling of carbon credits developed through Aboriginal land management easier.
“Sustainable Indigenous land management, such as savannah burning, not only reduces carbon emissions but also builds communities by offering meaningful jobs for local traditional owners as rangers and an independent income,” Foley recently told The Guardian. Many controlled burn programs, as well as other carbon abatement and environmental programs, are now conducted through the Indigenous Rangers program, a government program that aims to create training and career pathways for Indigenous people in land and sea management.
Supporting indigenous land management is also a major focus of The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Australia program, says David Hinchley, who manges the program. “We’ve invested in science and policy work leading to the approved carbon abatement methodologies (and are continuing to support further development of sequestration methodologies) as well as supporting Indigenous groups to undertake early season burning and develop operational and governance capacity to effectively develop and implement fire management and carbon projects. “
Foley’s group, meanwhile, is working to share the lessons of its experience through an agreement between the Aboriginal Carbon Fund and the Canadian First Nations Energy and Mining Council. Noting the similarities between Australia and Canada regarding Indigenous land management, the agreement calls for the sharing of information between the two groups and urges their respective national governments to “meet, cooperate and share experiences encouraging indigenous involvement in low carbon development.”
Reforesting the Lower Mississippi Valley
The bottomland forests of the Lower Mississippi River Valley once covered 24 million acres, a stretch of forest so dense and complete that “a squirrel could go all the way from Illinois to Louisiana without putting its foot on the ground,” says Ronnie Ulmer, Northeast Louisiana Program Manager for the Nature Conservancy. Less than a quarter of that forest remains today, scattered across 50,000 patches of land—the rest of the forest cleared for agriculture and other development. But hardwood forests are returning to the region, thanks to a range of private and public actors, and as the trees grow they will sequester of millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon-offset credits offer most of the funding for these efforts. Because much of the agricultural land in the region has only marginal productivity, land owners are often willing to sell or reforest their lands if they have other sources of revenue. Companies like GreenTrees and Natural Capital Partners are working with landowners to protect and replant trees, sharing the revenue from the credits with the owners. These efforts are supported by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Lower Mississippi Valley Conservation Committee, a coalition of state-level natural resource offices in the region.
In addition to sequestering carbon, these new forests provide habitat for wildlife in the region, such as the Louisiana black bear—a subspecies that was nearly driven to extinction by habitat loss. The reforested lands also reduce runoff into nearby streams and rivers, trapping the nutrient pollutants that cause the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Reduced-Impact Logging in Indonesia and Malaysia
You don’t have to visit Southeast Asia to experience the tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. Just look around your home—the dense plywood that makes up so much furniture and building materials around the world is made from the tropical hardwoods harvested in these forests. And that ubiquity poses problem for our climate. The tropical forests from which these trees are harvested have massive carbon storage potential: 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from tropical deforestation, and tropical forests store more carbon than is currently stored in the atmosphere.
Ending tropical deforestation is easier said than done, of course. In Indonesia, which boasts some of the largest swathes of old-growth tropical forests in the world, the national government is striving to grow its economy and raise the standard of living for its people, and timber production is part of that plan. Fortunately, reduced-impact logging (RIL-C)—a set of logging practices that focuses on removing only high-quality timber while minimizing impact to the ecosystem—can reduce some carbon emissions and minimize damage to soil and water quality while also maintaining an active industry that resists forest conversion and supports communities.
The Nature Conservancy is working with the national government and with logging concessions in Indonesia for 15 years now, helping them implement such practices. For example, loggers can take care to leave hollow trees standing—these trees are unusable for timber but will continue to store significant amounts of carbon if left standing and provide critical wildlife habitat. Better technology for skidding logs out of the forest, and better road construction can also reduce impact to forests and further mitigate carbon emissions.
By creating a more sustainable logging industry, this collaborative effort not only minimizes carbon emissions in the short term, but also creates a path for landowners to make a living on their lands without clearing them for palm cultivation or agriculture, practices that would result in far greater emissions. And because 80 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions come from deforestation, the steps will go a long way toward helping the country meet its voluntary mitigating targets under the Paris Agreement.
Wood Construction and Finland’s Timber Industry
While most efforts to decarbonize the world’s economies tend to focus on energy and transportation, there are significant gains to be made in the construction sector. In fact, a report from the United Kingdom’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills estimates that construction influences 47 percent of CO2emissions in the UK. One of the ways to minimize those emissions, perhaps counter-intuitively, is to build more with wood.
The manufacturing of concrete, brick, aluminum and steel accounts for 16 percent of the world’s carbon emissions; that share is even higher if you take into account the fossil fuels used to transport those materials. Wood construction, on the other hand, actively stores carbon in the building, and wood-constructed buildings have lower energy usage (download). Furthermore, because wood is much lighter than steel or concrete, construction projects can be completed more quickly and with less waste and less energy expenditure, resulting in further emissions reductions and a comparable cost for builders and investors.
"Construction is not the only industry that can make greater use of wood," says Matti Mikkola, managing director of the Federation of Finish Woodworking Industries. "In Finland, nearly all the interior finishings of homes are also made from wood, and the range of other products that could switch to wood production is almost unlimited," he says. Wood is one the strongest and most versatile building materials—and, in addition to storing carbon, it is one of the few that is fully recyclable and renewable.
Of course, not all wood carries the same benefits. To have a low carbon footprint, wood products need to be sourced from well-managed natural forests or from sustainable plantations that do not drive clearance or degradation of existing forests. Certification of supply chains is key to ensure that the wood being used has positive consequences for people and planet.
Growing demand for sustainable wood products also presents an economic opportunity for countries like Finland, where 1 in 10 citizens earn their income directly from forestry or related industries and timber products make up 20% of the nation’s exports. More demand for sustainably grown timber products means more green jobs and more incentive to replant and maintain forests, sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere and providing a range of co-benefits, from water filtration to wildlife habitat.
Regional Case Studies For Download
East Kalimantan, Indonesia
The evolution of East Kalimantan to becoming a pioneer in forest-friendly, low-carbon growth is a testament to the value of strong leadership and collaboration—and the need to think big, work small and embrace complexity.DOWNLOAD
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
The Yucatán Peninsula is on a pathway towards achieving sustainable development by halting deforestation and forest degradation, restoring land, and improving conservation schemes, as well as boosting sustainable economic opportunities that enhance local communities. More informationDOWNLOAD