Sustainability

Campaigners pioneer natural solutions to climate change

A group of environmental campaigners and scientists is calling for a new approach to tackling climate change.

A letter from the group, Natural Climate Solutions, was published in the Guardian yesterday (3 April) championing ecological restoration as a way to address global warming – by encouraging the growth of forests, peatlands, marshes and other landscapes that will help to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Led by writer and environmentalist George Monbiot, the campaign has garnered support from leading figures in science and the arts, such as climate scientist Michael Mann and author Naomi Klein.

Their letter states: ‘By defending, restoring and re-establishing […] crucial ecosystems, very large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. At the same time, the protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help to minimise a sixth great extinction, while enhancing local people’s resilience against climate disaster.

‘This potential has so far been largely overlooked. We call on governments to support Natural Climate Solutions with an urgent programme of research, funding and political commitment.’

A gloomy forest
Restoring natural ecosystems like forests would help to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere

A briefing paper compiled by Monbiot notes that the methods of carbon sequestration (capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it) currently proposed have long-term negative impacts on the environment and resource use.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would see vast amounts of biomass like grasses or other crops grown in plantations, which act as a carbon sink, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The crops are then burned for energy and any CO2 produced is buried, meaning the overall process is carbon negative.

Natural Climate Solutions says that relying on BECCS to mitigate climate change would require ‘plantations on either 1.1 billion hectares of the world’s most productive agricultural land (this is three times the total area of India) or on 50 per cent of the land currently occupied by natural forests.

‘The result would be either to risk mass starvation or to replace, on a global scale, vibrant and diverse ecosystems with industrial monocultures.’

In addition, the paper notes, producing biomass on such a large scale would require a huge increase in the amount of nitrogen fertiliser used, something that producers dangerous nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions, dangerous to human health and the environment. Large plantations also require irrigation water, at a premium in many countries already.

Since using BECCS on a large enough scale to effectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere could push our land and natural resources to breaking point, Natural Climate Solutions are posed as the ‘cheap and effective’ solution.

Some trailblazers in the UK are already beginning to trial Natural Climate Solutions such as forms of rewilding. At the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are now flourishing, while the Carrifran Wildwood project on the Scottish Borders has seen volunteers replant over 600,000 native trees in a valley that was left bare by overgrazing.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot
Governments have so far been loathe to provide financial support, with only around 2.5 per cent of funding for climate mitigation going to Natural Climate Solutions. However, Monbiot told Resource: “The farm subsidy system could be radically changed in order to promote it. This would actually make economic sense for farmers, because it turns out that even with a quite moderate carbon price, it would make more sense to be paying landowners and tenants to do ecological restoration and draw down carbon, than it currently does to pay them to basically clear the land, which is what the Common Agricultural Policy does. Farmers would do quite well out of it.”

While it is essential that Natural Climate Solutions do not take up land that could be used for quality food growing, rewilded ecosystems could provide additional benefits to local communities in areas where land is not suitable for food production.

For more information, visit the Natural Climate Solutions website.

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