Credit: Lukasz Szmigiel
The United Nations recently released a new climate report built upon a previous assessment released in February. The last IPCC climate report focused on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; this report provides an updated evaluation of global mitigation strategies and pledges and examines emission sources. In other words, this report highlights the ways humanity can limit further climate change.
The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the scientific group assembled by the United Nations to monitor and assess global climate change. This latest report is the final stage of the IPCC’s 6th WGIII. The IPCC is the world’s top authority on climate science, providing expertise and guidance to world leaders developing climate policies.
Much of the information in the report isn’t new. Climate change is causing more frequent and severe storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Current plans to address climate change are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Instead, we’re on course to exceed the carbon release allotted to keep warming lower than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.
“Net-zero” + carbon removal = only path forward
The report reiterates that we must accelerate the global transition to clean energy and reach “net-zero” emissions. We also need to remove some of the carbon already in the atmosphere.
This all sounds like bad news. But thankfully, the Earth provides one of the perfect mitigation strategies available–nature. Plants naturally absorb carbon from the air and store it in their roots and the soil. Our beloved photosynthesizing forests, wetlands and deserts do more than provide recreation and psychological benefits. Nature can provide nearly a third of the emission reductions needed to stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold.
“The evidence is clear: the time for action is now. We can halve emissions by 2030,” states the report.
Nature’s climate change mitigation potential
The most significant takeaway from this report found that reducing the destruction of ecosystems and restoring and protecting them is one of the most effective methods for mitigating carbon emissions. Increasing solar energy is the only other more effective strategy, which you can see in the graph below.
Overview of mitigation options and their estimated ranges of costs and potentials in 2030. Source: IPCC WGIII
Changing how we manage our farmlands and timber forests to retain more carbon is the other side of the coin. These three solutions are among the top five most effective options for tackling climate change by 2030.
And these three solutions are the least expensive options. For example, the report found that protecting nature to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would cost up to $400 billion a year by 2050 – less than current business-as-usual agriculture and forestry subsidies. We’re already supporting these industries, so why not direct funding sustainably and effectively?
The economic cost of climate change
Protecting and restoring nature will help the economy as well. The alternative–doing nothing–will cost much more in the long run. Just this past year highlights the price we’re already paying. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that the costliest natural disasters of 2021 created $148 billion in damages and took 724 lives. The below graphic shows the increase in the cost of natural disasters since 1980.
1980 – 2021 U.S. Billion-Dollar Natural Disaster Costs. Source: National Centers for Environmental Information
While natural disasters have always existed, global warming creates atmospheric changes that amplify droughts and heatwaves and strengthen extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods.
A 2020 study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature found that the global economy stands to lose at least $150 trillion to as much as $792 trillion by the end of the century if nations fail to sufficiently rein in greenhouse gas emissions as agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. Clearly, inaction is detrimental to the Earth, society and the economy.
Protecting nature benefits the economy, the planet and human beings.
Nature is a salve in more ways than one
Preserving ecosystems is inextricably linked to human wellbeing. Nature provides ecosystem services such as clean air and water, safeguarding fisheries, providing food and buffering coastal areas from storms and flooding–not to mention the psychological benefits of time spent among the trees.
Nature can help mitigate carbon emissions while meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 global goals, established in 2015, aim to create a more equitable and sustainable world. The goals cover objectives like reducing hunger and inequality, poverty, improving education, health and access to clean water, amongst others.
It turns out that preserving and restoring nature will help us accomplish these goals. In fact, a 2021 study by Conservation International found that protecting and restoring nature is required for achieving most of these goals. Safeguarding nature provides carbon reductions while also helping the communities that depend upon the various ecosystem services. A two for one, if you will.
The bottom line
We have time to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report agrees this is possible if we cut emissions in half by 2030. However, experts agree this will take a complete transformation of our energy supplies, economic models, and land stewardship. It will necessitate changes in every sector, government and community.
Thankfully, we know one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to stop the climate catastrophe–nature.