Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Nature Has Our Backs (We Hope)
The carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere continues to grow. The last measure of the CO2e putting the concentration levels at 414ppm versus our pre-industrial benchmark of 285ppm. With more carbon dioxide comes more climate crisis, and we continue to put a whole lot more into our atmosphere. In 2019 humanity emitted 36.81bn tonnes (this is such a big number it is somewhat meaningless, for help visualising stupidly large carbon dioxide numbers hop over to our other blog series that attempts to illustrate the immense magnitude of these numbers).
The problem with emitted carbon is that even if we stop farting more out in the atmosphere the stuff we have already put there isn’t going anywhere fast. The majority of modelled 2ºC scenarios for our future contain some form of carbon capture and storage at massive scale. This means sucking the carbon dioxide back out of our atmosphere and finding somewhere to store it where it won't leak back (or turning it into something solid like limestone). Two minor issues are creating the energy required to power this process and capturing the surprisingly elusive carbon dioxide. Outside of concentrations in industrial smokestacks or car exhausts CO2 is incredibly dispersed - 415ppm equates to just 0.04% of the atmosphere.
No human technology yet exists that can be implemented on these scales in the necessary timeframe, despite the wishful thinking of politicians. We will, of course, be absolutely delighted to be proved wrong.
Thankfully, nature has our back. The global ecosystem has evolved to self-regulate. This self-regulation has contributed to the period of climate stability the earth has experienced over the last 10,000 years.
In the last six decades, we humans have done our best to put this carefully calibrated system out of whack. Whether it is termed the Great Acceleration or the Anthropocene, this puny descendant of the apes has evolved into a geologically relevant force of nature. Luckily nature spent the preceding millennia evolving the tools for us to help set things back to rights (see Maslin & Lewis for a great read on the Anthropocene).
At earthrhize we passionately believe that these so called 'Nature Based Solutions' are a crucial tool in rebalancing our climate and preventing global catastrophe. In our favourite reference work on Carbon – “Drawdown”, Nature Based Solutions feature in 22 of the top 100 approaches to getting to a stable operating earth system (Drawdown should be amongst everyone’s favourite bathtime and bedtime reading – be like us and keep a copy in the loo (short chapters)).
To illustrate the concept a little further, let's talk about trees.
Trees are magic carbon eating machines. In fact, using human terminology trees are perfect carbon capture and storage technologies.
Having been the subject of constant research and development (aka evolution) for around 370 million years, trees really know how to adapt to an extraordinary range of environments whilst conscientiously absorbing that carbon dioxide.
There has been a lot of hoo-hah in recent years over the staggering potential for reforestation and afforestation to sequester carbon across the planet. One speculative study suggested there was enough available land globally to plant 1 trillion trees that would collectively sequester 2/3rds of human related carbon dioxide emissions.
The science is of course more complicated than this. This is no silver bullet solution to our climate woes. Simply planting trees is certainly not going far enough, making sure you are planting the right tree in the right place at the right time is a good start. It is also crucial to make sure there is community buy-in and benefit from the tree planting. This helps guarantee that trees will live to maturity (to maximise their sequestration potential). It also helps to prevent the displacement of peoples from their land in order to solve an issue that is not their fault. We have an upcoming blog where we will discuss the best practices we at earthrhize follow when choosing tree planting projects.
Even better than planting trees is protecting the ones we already have. Mature forest ecosystems sequester more carbon than new forests growing from scratch. Carbon trading mechanisms like the REDD+ programme help channel funds towards forest protection in countries where other economic drivers would otherwise encourage their destruction (we like funding these projects, you can check out a couple here and here).
Trees do not act simply as carbon hoovers. They provide a plethora of other ecosystem services that benefit humanity and non-human life. Forests support thriving systems of biodiversity, human health and sustainable economic activity. Our mangrove partners Eden Reforestation work on projects that maximise all of these broader benefits (read more about them here).
To evaluate these projects earthrhize have evolved the HALO where we attempt to capture the positive impacts a project represents across Humanity, Air, Land and Oceans. The HALO for the REDD+ Shipibo project in Peru are illustrative of the manifold benefits that appropriate tree planting creates.
The best part is trees are just the beginning! Here are some of our other favourite natural solutions to the climate crisis (look out for upcoming, in-depth blogs on all of them):
The top metre of the world’s soils contains 3 times as much carbon as out atmosphere. When treated well, soils act as a carbon sink, drawing down even more carbon. However our current agriculture practices disrupt these natural cycles, actually releasing more carbon from the soil into the atmosphere (planting trees in the wrong place can also release carbon from the soil). If we return to sustainable soil management practices and regenerative agriculture techniques we may be able to return the carbon to the earth. It is estimated this could provide up to 5.5 billion tonnes of sequestration (or a little over two times the amount the Covid-19 pandemic caused in emissions reductions globally).
Drawdown Ranking: Soil is directly relevant to at least 10 of the Drawdown top 100 sequestration methods, from Silvopasture (Ranked 9th) to Composting (Ranked 60th).
Peatlands are thought to cover only 3% of the world’s surface but store at least twice as much carbon as all of the world’s trees combined. In the past they have been drained for agriculture (or, in hindsight foolishly, for tree planting), a process which releases their stored carbon. The restoration of peat bogs allows the return of the carbon back to where it belongs.
Drawdown Ranking: 13th
Seagrass and Seaweed
The forests of the sea! Oceanic sequestration, otherwise known as blue carbon, also has huge carbon drawdown potential. Seagrass meadows make up 0.1% of the ocean floor but sequester 15% of its carbon. These meadows and similar habitats such as kelp forests can provide sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities and are vital marine habitats, supporting vibrant ecosystems.
Drawdown Ranking: 52nd
Full flourishing ecosystems are the healthiest carbon stores. There are projects underway across the globe to rewild vast tracts of land, encouraging the return of native species and ecosystems. There is much debate about the best approaches, but we do know that when left to its own devices, nature finds away to get back on its feet (as per the oft-mentioned, close to a cliché situation of the exclusion zone of Chernobyl).
Drawdown Ranking: Not ranked as an individual solution but contributes towards many of the above mentioned solutions
We have greatly undervalued the services our natural world provides us for free. Because of this we have hastened the speed at which we are changing our planet’s climate. However there is great hope in the sequestration potential of these nature based solutions.
As with all things climate change related, the cost of not leveraging these solutions is a massive climate justice issue (stay tuned for upcoming blogs on this topic), but nature based solutions are some of the most equitable approaches to this challenge.
At earthrhize we search each month for the best projects that support these nature-based solutions. They tackle the climate problems we are facing in a holistic way, not only drawing down carbon but also supporting biodiversity, encouraging sustainable livelihoods and protecting vulnerable communities. Within the natural world lie the answers to save it, and us.
Get your eyeballs on these exciting reads:
Why Investing in Nature is Key to Climate Mitigation – McKinsey might sell their services to anyone with a spare million or two but you have to hand it to them, they do know a good bit of analysis
The Economics of Biodiversity – UK government commissioned report from the leading economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, to be skim read and left to rot on a dusty shelf by Boris, Ashok and Gove who if asked what they're doing on the climate can always whip it out and wave it around enthusiastically (rinse and repeat for Starmer et al should they ever get a go at the levers of power)
Tree Planting Won't Stop the Climate Crisis – Rolling Stone, for all of you rock and roll news and climate analysis, an excellent review of recent studies on how important it is to get tree planting right
How Natural Climate Solutions Can Reduce the Need for BECCS – Carbon Brief, your one-stop-shop for all of your in-depth carbon long-reads, one for the wonks
The Human Planet: How We Created The Anthropocene by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin – A thoroughly engrossing study encompassing planetary science and the relentless rise of the most intelligent of apes to a point where we are a geological force in our own right. The scientific arguments as to whether we are in the Anthropocene, and, if so, where is the geological marker or golden spike, read like a decent thriller. Anyone who has enjoyed the works of Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Harari will be mesmerised by this tale of how humanity’s environmental footprint expanded from the settlers of the Tigris and Euphrates to the planet de-stabilising force of today