Smog blanketed the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo just hours after Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week began. The soot-filled air, laden with carbon dioxide and carcinogens had travelled more than 2,000 miles from the heart of the Amazon.
There, fires have burned continuously for more than 3 weeks, risking the unique species that call the rainforest home and further contributing to the skyward rise in damaging greenhouse gases.
We didn’t remain long in Sao Paolo. The city served as a stopover for many of the 5,000 or so attendees on their way to the conference in the sunny coastal city of Salvador, Brazil. It also served as a reminder of the challenges ahead.
Nature: the solution under our feet
Restricting the world’s emissions to below a 2 degree Celsius rise is a gargantuan task – but one we must achieve. The conference itself demonstrated how we can all make positive choices – by for example only serving vegetarian food to participants and promoting the city’s local bike hire companies. Yet with most participants traveling long distances to reach Salvador, it was evident that we are far from being a fully decarbonized global economy.
While a low-carbon transition is slowly gaining momentum, there is a short-term solution that can help keep up to 11 gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s been here the whole time underneath our feet. Natural climate solutions (NCS), including conservation, restoration and improved land management, can provide more than one-third of the carbon mitigation needed.
NCS has an outsized impact in Latin America, which holds a quarter of the Earth’s forests and arable land and 40% of all emissions come from its land use. Many leaders in the region have already seen this as an opportunity.
"If you can, you must"
It’s easy at conferences like these with ‘high-level panel discussions’ to feel that you can’t accomplish change without being a Prime Minister or President. But sometimes change comes from unexpected places. In a small, side-room, Duncan van Bergen, Vice-President of Shell’s New Energies group spoke: “If you can, you must.”
In step with society as it move towards the goal of the Paris Agreement, Shell has committed to cut the carbon intensity of the energy products they sell, becoming the first oil and gas company to do so. That means fewer greenhouse gases emitted on average with each unit of energy – by roughly 20% by 2035 and by roughly half by 2050. Could they do more? Certainly–they are looking into it from the highest levels, as their leaders now have salaries directly tied to carbon emissions performance.
But like many companies, van Bergen discovered that the largest source of Shell’s emissions by far are what’re called ‘Scope 3’ emissions–people like you and me–who might pay for oil directly at the pump or indirectly through an Amazon package delivered to our door via truck.
Keyvan Macedo from Natura, the largest cosmetics company in Brazil, agreed. The business case is clear to them: many of their ingredients come from the rainforest, and many more might be discovered there in the future. Natura has been offsetting since 2008, and sources from a variety of projects in Latin America with strong social and environmental benefits – including from forestry projects in the Amazon.
However, finding the right project has not been easy, so they’ve recently partnered with the Brazilian bank Itaú to make sourcing easier. In doing so, they’ve inspired other companies to join. Yet Macedo said that telling the story to their customers is still difficult – ten years later.
The problem with long-distance travel
At a side-event on voluntary offsetting we asked the room full of climate professionals if they had ever purchased an offset to cover something like their flight to Brazil.
Three in the audience raised their hands.
We can almost certainly guarantee they didn’t take a boat here like Greta Thunberg on her way to the Climate Action Summit in New York. Nor can everyone. While there is a growing movement not to fly–always the best case for the climate–there are times, like attending policy negotiations, where alternatives remain sub-optimal.
International aviation has made some positive steps: ‘CORSIA’ an upcoming carbon market to reduce emissions from international flights, will rely almost exclusively on offsets in the short-term. This could be a significant source of much needed near-term finance for natural climate solutions. However greater ambition from the sector will also be needed, along with a recognition that offsetting can only be a short-term tool transitionary tool on a pathway to ‘net-zero’ emissions aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our last day at the conference ended with a concert by Gilberto Gil, a well-known Brazilian musician and former Minister of Culture. As we left humming the tunes we heard from Gil, we were reflecting on his famous song “Refazenda” in which he inspires us all to learn to live in rhythm with nature – a fitting ending message.