World News | No more excuses: Restoring nature is no silver bullet to global warming, we need to cut emissions altogether
Melbourne, July 5 (The Conversation) Restoring degraded environments, for example by planting trees, is often touted as a solution to the climate crisis. But our new research shows that this, while important, is no substitute for preventing fossil fuel emissions to limit global warming.
We calculated the maximum potential of responsible nature restoration to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And we found that, combined with ending deforestation by 2030, this could reduce global warming by 0.18°C by 2100. By comparison, countries’ current pledges put us on track to a warming of 1.9 to 2°C.
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This is far from what is needed to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of climate change, and well above the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target. And it pours cold water on the idea that we can offset our exit from ongoing global warming.
The priority remains the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, which have contributed 86% of all CO2 emissions over the past decade. Deforestation must also stop, with land use, deforestation and forest degradation contributing 11% of global emissions.
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The hype around nature restoration
Growing commitments to net zero climate goals have focused on restoring nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, based on claims that nature can provide more than a third of the climate mitigation needed by 2030.
However, the term ‘nature restoration’ often encompasses a wide range of activities, some of which actually degrade nature. This includes monoculture tree plantations, which destroy biodiversity, increase pollution and eliminate land available for food production.
Indeed, we find that the hype around nature restoration tends to overshadow the importance of restoring degraded landscapes and conserving existing forests and other ecosystems already storing carbon.
This is why we applied a “responsible development” framework to nature restoration for our study. Broadly, this means that restoration activities should follow ecological principles, respect land rights and minimize land use change.
This requires differentiating between activities that restore degraded lands and forests (such as ending native logging or increasing vegetation in pastures), versus planting new forest.
Distinction matters. Creating new tree plantations means changing the way land is used. This poses risks to biodiversity and has potential trade-offs, such as the removal of important agricultural land.
On the other hand, restoring degraded land does not displace existing land uses. Restoration enhances, rather than alters, biodiversity and existing agriculture.
The potential of nature restoration
We suggest that this represents the maximum potential for “responsible” land restoration available for climate change mitigation. We found that this would translate to a median of 378 billion tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere between 2020 and 2100.
That may sound like a lot, but, for perspective, global CO2 equivalent emissions were 59 billion tonnes in 2019 alone. This means that the removals we might expect from nature restoration over the rest of century correspond to only six years of current emissions.
Based on this CO2 removal potential, we assessed impacts on peak global warming and temperature reduction over a century.
We found that restoring nature only marginally reduces global warming – and any climate benefit is dwarfed by the scale of ongoing fossil fuel emissions, which could exceed 2 trillion tonnes of CO2 by 2100, under current policies.
But let’s say we combine that potential with a deep decarbonization scenario, where renewables are scaled up rapidly and we reach net zero emissions globally by 2050.
Then we calculate that the planet would briefly exceed a temperature increase of 1.5°C, before declining to 1.25-1.5°C by 2100.
Of course, phasing out fossil fuels while restoring degraded lands and forests must also go hand in hand with ending deforestation. Otherwise, emissions from deforestation will wipe out any gains from carbon removal.
Given this, we also explored the impact of phasing out land use emissions, to achieve net zero in the land sector by 2030.
As with restoration, we found that halting deforestation by 2030 has a very small impact on global temperatures and would only reduce warming by about 0.08°C over the century. This is largely because our baseline scenario already assumed that governments would take action. Increased deforestation would lead to much greater warming.
Overall, restoring nature and stopping deforestation, end-of-the-century warming could be reduced by 0.18°C.
Is it enough?
If we move onto a low-emissions pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C this century, we expect global temperature increase to peak in the next one to two decades.
As our research shows, nature restoration is unlikely to happen fast enough to offset fossil emissions and notably reduce these global maximum temperatures.
But let’s be clear. We are not suggesting that restoring nature is pointless or unimportant. In our urgency to mitigate climate change, every fraction of a degree of warming we can prevent counts.
Restoring degraded landscapes is also crucial for planetary health – the idea that human health and thriving natural systems are inextricably linked.
Moreover, protecting existing ecosystems – such as intact forests, peatlands and wetlands – has an important immediate climate benefit, as it avoids releasing the carbon they store.
What our research clearly shows is that it is dangerous to rely on the restoration of nature to achieve our climate goals, rather than the effective and drastic elimination of fossil fuels. We see this dependency in, for example, carbon offset programs.
Maintaining the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C requires rapid reductions in fossil fuel emissions before 2030 and net-zero global emissions by 2050, with some studies even calling for 2040.
Rich countries, such as Australia, are expected to reach net zero CO2 emissions sooner than the global average due to their higher historical emissions.
We now need new international cooperation and agreements to halt the expansion of fossil fuels globally and for governments to strengthen their national climate commitments under the ratchet mechanism of climate change agreements. Paris. Promises of terrestrial carbon dioxide removal cannot justify delays in these necessary actions. (The conversation)
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