Natural climate solutionsJanuary 4, 2021
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We aren’t seeing the wood for the trees
Political ecologist Dr Scott Leatham warns that we must sensitively restore nature, but we cannot rely on actions like tree planting alone as a solution to climate breakdown.
Originally published in our member’s magazine Clean Slate 118 – Winter 2020
The declines and collapses in the abundance and variety of life on Earth is accelerating. As we enter the sixth mass extinction, the planet is also warming at unprecedented rates. Whilst our talk, our understanding, and even our targets have increased, real action, proportionate to the scale of the challenge, is rare and insufficient.
As impacts have increased, such as in droughts and floods, fires and crop failures, they have fallen unequally across the world, hitting the poorest hardest. Those least responsible, with the fewest resources to adapt or build back, are in the most immediate danger.
Focusing on isolated sites of intervention, like tree planting and peatland restoration, can be important actions, but they will not be sufficient – and depending on who is driving that agenda, they can make things worse. Only by questioning the economic system and imagining new ways of living prosperously will we tackle ultimate drivers of ecosystem and climate breakdown.
“Such action must begin immediately” a recent major scientific review notes, “and address the root economic, social, and technological causes of nature’s deterioration”.
What are “natural climate solutions?”
Natural climate solutions, in theory, can help bridge connections between biodiversity, climate action, and community engagement. They are fast becoming a new discourse within mainstream conservation circles, local and national governments, and big companies. But natural climate solutions are not all made equally – like many environmental issues, there is a wide range of views.
Done sensitively and appropriately, by and for place-based communities, by restoring nature we can increase the natural stores of greenhouse gas emissions, such as in wetlands and woodland. In urban areas, this includes trees and other “green infrastructure”.
Natural climate solutions are already set to be discussed at the UN COP15 – major global talks on biodiversity – with the host country, China, saying a new deal must include natural climate solutions. Those talks are to agree the global “post-Aichi framework” for biodiversity, and it’s worth pointing out that the world failed to meet every single goal under the original Aichi framework. It may be an understatement to say global governance has not improved since.
Climate change and the loss of life on Earth are deeply interconnected. As one worsens, so does the other: the destruction of forestry, wetlands, and seabed releases further greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Increased risks of fire, drought, ocean acidification, and extreme weather drive further collapse while imperilling communities. “Net-zero” pledges often rely on the processes by which ecosystems act as sinks for greenhouse gas pollutants. As long as we increase the rate that these ecosystems soak up and store carbon, the theory goes, we can continue to release it, albeit at a reduced rate. While that potential has been noted, it is not a coincidence that some of the loudest voices arguing for this approach have been fossil fuel industries.
In places, we’ve even seen oil companies make deals with seemingly climate-progressive governments to plant trees as petrol and diesel are purchased. What environmental consciousness has emerged in recent years risks being channelled into approaches that cause yet more damage. There are, of course, more genuine approaches to “natural climate solutions” grounded in sincere care and an understanding of the many wrongs of climate inaction. Bringing communities together to restore, through local consent, knowledge, and actions, lost ecosystems and lost connections to nature is essential if we are to develop sustainable ways of living.
But this means treading a tightrope: to advocate the numerous, irreplaceable, and life-supporting benefits and wonders that nature brings us while guarding against the powerful interests who claim that these increased benefits justify continued climate pollution.
But could they work?
Natural climate solutions – viewed in the narrow sense of offsetting emissions through restoring nature – need land. Exactly how much land is less clear. The United Nations will soon embark on the “decade of ecosystem restoration”, a 10-year project that will incorporate the Bonn Challenge of restoring 350 million hectares of land by 2030. That’s nearly the size of India. It will, in theory, sequester 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases (measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2e). That’s a significant range that hints at the complexity and unknowns when it comes to calculating overall carbon storage in ecosystems. But the bigger problem is that we’re emitting around 50 gigatons every year.
By 2030, according to the UN Environment Programme’s 2019 emissions gap report, we will be emitting about 56 gigatons of CO2e even based on our current commitments to reduction. That means the decade of ecosystem restoration – the largest ambition of its kind requiring numerous international commitments – may not even make up for the cumulative growth in emissions between now and its target date, let alone make a dent in current emissions. At the very best, it will be around 6 months’ worth of 2030 emissions. Worth having, but not a solution. Meanwhile, even seemingly ambitious policy approaches, including “net-zero” pledges, fall far short
of what is required.
Importantly, this does not show the fallacy of restoring nature, or even of the decade-long programme – which will have numerous other benefits including adapting to locked-in climate changes – but of relying on such efforts as solutions to greenhouse gas pollution.
Climate action does not have the time. The UN also warns that the window for keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is rapidly closing – by 2025 it will be “almost impossible” to meet the required 15.6% annual reductions (we are currently failing to meet the required 7%). There is simply not enough land to plant over or re-wet, or time to do it in, to accommodate the emissions of an evergrowing economy.
Nature 2.0: Under New Management
Deployed at any kind of scale to make a dent in global emissions, then, would require colossal areas of land, but this issue of land use goes further than the quantity needed. Indigenous activists and communities, geographers, historians, political ecologists, and others, have long pointed out the relationships between land management and forms of political violence, erasure, occupation, and control. When we talk of large-scale natural climate solutions we are talking of managing nature to right the wrongs of a historically high-consuming, largely Western minority. This is introducing yet new ways and logics by which to know, modify, and control nature and land, and frequently by extension local people’s livelihoods. In this approach, restoring nature relies on an ever-increasing agency over land rooted in deeply unequal structures of power and resource possession. That is, it risks contributing to the socioeconomic and political foundations of unequal exchange that have propelled climate change risks and exposures by allowing those who can afford it (individuals, companies, states) the ability to offset their damages onto others. If restoration takes place based on sequestering carbon for a price, the geography of who has money and who has land becomes a significant political issue.
Restoring nature is vital because of the multitude of life-support systems it provides. Seeing nature for just its carbon benefits risks concentrating on those aspects which deliver sequestration to the exclusion of other considerations – including local, Indigenous, and subjective values. If carbon storage is paid for in order to fund the restoration, as is frequently suggested and already widely carried out, the restorers will achieve greatest value by storing the greatest amount of carbon in the smallest amount of space due to the cost of land. At this point, it ceases to be nature restoration and becomes an intensive carbon crop.
We currently lack the knowledge to fully understand the implications of this – recent studies show some tree planting, for example, having zero net storage of carbon. This includes swathes of Scotland – the area set to receive the vast bulk of UK tree planting in coming years. If we count all afforestation as sequestration, as we currently do, and that sequestration hasn’t actually taken place, we risk the accuracy of our data and we overestimate our action. This isn’t wholly speculative: the same market signals already contribute to monoculture timber plantations and intensive farming. Carbon-focused restoration, if mediated through the market, will favour management practices which boost carbon storage density – ignoring other benefits, for us or other species. Our history of sufficiently regulating similar practices does not offer much hope.
A common suggestion is to then price other benefits: flood prevention, pollination, and so on, so they aren’t left out of decision-making (the “payments for ecosystem services” framework, where carbon storage is an ecosystem service). In a direct way, putting a price on nature. Whilst touching on a broader debate, it’s important to note that such lines of thought have tended to ignore the fact that if a service can be done more cheaply, it will be – think of outsourcing. Basing the restoration and conservation of nature on market mechanisms, then, is to place two bets: one, that a cheaper solution will not be found that outperforms the ‘natural service’ – leaving it without funding. And two, that all the unknown, unquantifiable, and inexpressible values of nature will somehow be incorporated into those few parts that might be known and might be quantifiable without dramatic market failures. These aren’t bets that we should take when the ante is so high and the record so poor. We must find means of valuing nature that go beyond carbon, commoditising, and markets, to build resilient efforts to reverse nature’s quickening collapse. This isn’t radical: in reality, we place tremendous value on things all the time without putting any price on them, from spending time with family to helping people during crises.
We can do better than just planting trees
Essential though it is to sensitively restore nature (and, crucially, allow natural regeneration), this will never be sufficient for tackling climate change without first and foremost confronting the drivers and injustices of its collapse. How can we focus on restoring nature at a large scale when we lack the tools and the human-nature relations to care for what already grows? How will what we restore be safe? Moreover, this tendency to view funding nature restoration as absolving big climate polluters of environmental guilt is to fundamentally misjudge the nature, complexity, and scale of the sustainability crisis. To the polluter, natural climate solutions are not an agenda that begins with stopping the harm – it’s an agenda that begins with finding outlets for it, ways of absorbing it, ways of excusing it and obscuring actors’ responsibility for it. That isn’t sustainable.
The complex linkages between life on Earth and climate change risks being reduced to two products that can be traded. We see this in the claim to “offset” carbon with tree planting and in the ongoing failure to address the ecosystem impacts of low-carbon technology. Aside from ethical concerns, evidence shows both restoration and eliminating emissions are necessary, but neither is possible without confronting the systemic drivers of endless growth and profitmaking from limited resources. While we can (and should) isolate particular processes as sites for action and intervention, we also need to take a step back – to see the wood and not just the trees; to think systemically about the real drivers of ecosystem collapse.
Whether it is relying on managing nature as a carbon farm, on propping up failing market systems, or in excusing wealthy states for their historical and current climate responsibilities by buying up carbon credits in Majority World countries, natural climate solutions fail to undo harm. In their worst guise, they contribute to it. Nevertheless, we need to reimagine how, why, and for whom we value, restore, and coexist with and within nature. That may well come from community actions to restore. Those that focus on the relationship between the systems we rely on for food and clean water and how we use them, how we comprehend the intergenerational gifts of restoring ecosystems, could help foster understandings of sustainability – not based on trading carbon credits but on mutual survivability and conviviality.
About the author
Scott is a political ecologist who has recently joined the CAT team as a Senior Lecturer in our Graduate School of the Environment. He lectures on social and political science aspects of sustainability. Outside of CAT, Scott is a Research Fellow with the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and works at the University of Edinburgh.