When the international conservation groups IUCN, The Nature Conservancy and others launched the Nature4Climate communications initiative in 2018, they stamped approval on the notion that nature has a significant role in addressing climate change in both mitigation (reducing carbon) and adaptation (increasing resilience) initiatives. Nature4Climate declares that nature-based action is the forgotten solution; nature can deliver 30% of the climate solutions needed by 2030, but is currently less than 1% of the conversation and receives less than 3% of climate funding.
Why the disparity?
Journalist, environmental activist and rewilding proponent George Monbiot helps explain why in an essay published in April of this year. He states that we cannot rely only on emissions reductions to reach the best-case scenario goal of limiting global warming to 1.5o Celsius, so we must also seek to draw down carbon already in the atmosphere through Negative Emissions Strategies. The common solutions proposed for Negative Emissions Strategies (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage [BECCS] and Direct Air Capture) are currently unrealistic at scale and threaten serious maladaptive consequences to water, biodiversity and communities. Nature-based climate solutions present the best and the most cost-effective option for carbon capture. Nature-based climate solutions initiated for carbon capture can have co-benefits for biodiversity, which is facing its own crisis driven in part by climate change but also by many other factors including habitat destruction and fragmentation for industrial-scale agriculture and other uses, black market trade, and invasive species and disease.
Nature-based climate solutions can also contribute to climate adaptation strategies that focus on securing life and quality of life within a shifting and unpredictable new climate. Adaptation efforts deal with sea level rise, storm surges and coastal protection; increased wildfires from dryer and hotter climates; species range shifts through fragmented habitats; and impacts on human populations from increasingly violent storms, lost harvests or disease. Building resilience to climate through nature-based solutions is therefore a cost-effective approach. The Global Center on Adaptation views ecosystem-based adaptation efforts like restoring deltas to prevent flooding as key to achieving community resilience worldwide. Like nature-based mitigation efforts, nature-based adaptation efforts can produce beneficial outcomes for biodiversity.
While much of the policy efforts around mitigation and adaptation are being driven by nation states and sub-national entities, the corporate landscape is full of initiatives and commitments to address climate change. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TFCD), RE100, REDD+ and others are engaging the corporate world in climate mitigation and adaptation. Companies themselves are fully engaged in transitioning to carbon-neutral or carbon-free business models, posting ambitious goals captured by yet another initiative, Science Based Targets, that has found 551 companies taking science-based climate action.
However, in most corporate mitigation and adaptation efforts, nature is absent. The majority of private sector action on climate is aimed at reducing carbon emissions from their operations and products. Energy companies seek to transition toward low-carbon or no-carbon sources for electricity. Manufacturing companies look for ways to make their products in less carbon-intensive ways with different materials and advanced technologies, while services companies work to reduce the energy consumption at their facilities and offset the carbon impact of their work-related travel.
Recently, Shell made a splash by announcing that part of its climate strategy is to invest $300 million in nature over the next three years with projects in the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Malaysia. It’s a great investment and will encourage other companies to take similar action. The work being funded is essentially an offset. What if Shell, or any other company considering offsets first looked at its own lands through the climate/nature lens? What if Shell, or indeed any company, mandated nature-first, climate-smart management? There is a big hole in corporate climate action that nature-based approaches can fill with cost-effective solutions that bring copious co-benefits.
Twenty nature-based conservation, restoration and improved land management actions have been identified to have the most significant impact on carbon storage or avoided emissions. These and other actions can have significant impact on climate adaptation, and most of these actions can be taken by the private sector on the lands they own or operate. Nature-based actions for carbon reduction are generally grouped around forests, grasslands and wetlands, with reforestation providing the biggest carbon impact and the most co-benefits for biodiversity, air, water and soil. Nature-based actions for adaptation can consist of green infrastructure investments to address climate-driven environmental management problems, ecological restoration to enhance existing ecosystem services and land management that supports the need for species movement to adapt to climate-driven range changes.
The following represent a small selection of actions that companies can take:
The cherry on the top of nature-based climate action is the impact on the human psyche. Many people feel a sense of hopelessness in the drumbeat of dire warnings around climate change and in the inability to do anything beyond protesting and taking small, individual actions. Providing opportunities for action for employees and community members through nature-based solutions can create a sense of positive purpose and accomplishment. In the book Biodiversity and Climate Change, editor Tom Lovejoy likens ecological restoration efforts for climate change to the victory gardens of World War II that addressed both the problem of food shortages and the psychology of the people on the home-front. Corporate lands, both large and small, can today become the victory gardens for climate.