As Climate Strategy Director at Conservation International, I spend most of my work day (and many hours outside of my work day) devoted to understanding the science behind changes in our climate. I also try to consider what solutions exist that might mitigate the effect climate change has on our planet, as well as ways to help vulnerable communities adapt to ever-changing weather patterns, dwindling food stocks, and decreases in water availability.
It’s not always easy. Trying to get a handle on what it will truly take to make a dent in the emissions heading into our atmosphere is daunting, especially when the trajectory of those emissions is so severe.
By way of example, a colleague recently forwarded me an article written by the brilliant Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, a well-known ecologist and professor at George Mason University here in Virginia. The article is about geo-engineering solutions — i.e., solutions to climate change that come from investing in new forms of technology that help trap carbon dioxide and other emissions from entering the atmosphere. Some forms of geo-engineering would even dissipate emissions that already are in the atmosphere. Dr. Lovejoy argues that this sort of technology is one method for halting the devastating trends of climate change and stopping our planet from overheating.
But he also endorses the role of ecosystems, and the services they provide, as an equally influential. Sure, Dr. Lovejoy mentions that “the power of ecosystem restoration to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and avoid disruptive climate change is great but insufficient.” But he also surmises that the cost to invest in other forms of carbon abatement technology is just too high. In other words: Our natural ecosystems are some of the most useful, most cost-effective ways of fighting climate change.
Dr. Lovejoy continues:
“… At the moment, roughly half the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from destruction and degradation of ecosystems over the past three centuries. A significant amount of CO2 can be withdrawn by ecosystem restoration on a planetary scale. That means reforestation, restoring degraded grasslands and pasturelands and practicing agriculture in ways that restore carbon to the soil. There are additional benefits: forests benefit watersheds, better grasslands provide better grazing and agricultural soils become more fertile. This must integrate with competing uses for land as the population grows, but fortunately it comes at a time of greater urbanization.”
In fact, if we are able to successfully and appropriately reforest our lands, restore degraded grasslands, and make agricultural practices more sustainable, we’ll be able to cut our total emissions by more than 30%. CI believes that reducing global deforestation by 50 percent by 2020 offers nearly one-third of the cost-effective, technologically available options to limit the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million — the threshold below which we’ll avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
It brings me great hope to see support for the role of a protected ecosystem in managing climate change. It brings me even greater hope to know that CI is working tirelessly to find the solutions necessary to repair and restore these planetary treasures. Intact and highly functioning ecosystems, paired with the technology capable of making great strides in addressing the climate challenge, can truly make a difference as we move in the direction of climate stability.
Joanne Sonenshine is CI’s director of climate strategy.