Keeping perspective on nature-based climate solutions

At Bemari, we are absolutely pro business actions which both contribute to decarbonisation and nature positivity.

This said, what we want are to ensure any business action maximises positive impact towards tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.

We don't want a muddy middle ground which is ineffective at supporting either crises.

This is why we decided to write a blog on ‘nature-based climate-solutions’ (NbCS sometimes referred to as NCS), as, in our view, there is increasing misinformation circulating around their role within business decarobonisation strategies.

Whilst NbCS can absolutely play an important role in reducing the peak temperatures of climate change, they're not a silver bullet for climate mitigation despite increasingly being touted as such.

It’s also worth remembering that fossil fuel companies are increasingly pushing NbCS, as a distraction mechanism from conversations, and more importantly action, around the decoupling of the economy from fossil fuels. 

It's therefore important that NbCS don't provide a scapegoat for the need for rapid decarbonisation.

What are Nature-based Climate Solutions?

NbCS encompass a range of strategies aimed at preserving and enhancing carbon storage in ecosystems and on agricultural lands.

A key appeal of NbCS, is their potential to contribute to climate mitigation efforts, while also generating additional co-benefits for human well-being and biodiversity. 

Here are three reasons why it’s key to keep NbCS in perspective: 
1. NbCS-based activities are not interchangeable with fossil fuel CO2 emission reductions.

The positioning of NbCS-based mitigation activities as equivalent to, and interchangeable with, fossil fuel CO2 emission reductions carries an implicit assumption: that the removed carbon will be permanently sequestered. This assumption is critical yet, to date, has not been well acknowledged in academic research. Anything less than permanent storage is only a temporary climate benefit which does not match the multi-century to millennial-scale warming caused by fossil fuel CO2 emissions. As point two will outline all NbCS are essentially temporary - it’s just a case of how temporary (will they store carbon for ten years or 100?). 

Many NbCS are highly vulnerable to both human-driven (e.g., deforestation or other land or sea-use change) and climate-related (e.g., wildfire, drought, ocean acidification or insect) disturbances that could occur at any time in the foreseeable or unforeseeable future, further shortening the time that carbon is stored. Research has calculated that 30 tonne-years of temporary storage is roughly the equivalent to one tonne of permanent storage (e.g. GHG saved from being emitted through stopping burning fossil fuel). 

Thus the only way to effectively address climate change is to rapidly decouple our economy from fossil fuel. 

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2. NbCS are dependent on rapid decarbonisation to be effective. 

In fact, research has shown that to realise a tangible benefit from nature stored carbon, we must rapidly decrease fossil fuel CO2 emissions to (net-)zero. If this occurs, then NCbS can help to reduce the peak temperature that the world will likely experience. 

This is because many forms of NbCS’ (e.g. sequestration in tree and vegetation) are ultimately temporary, as when the organism dies, carbon is naturally released back into the atmosphere. So many NbCS are essentially mechanisms for delaying carbon release, for anywhere between 50 - 200 years time. However, models show that NbCS are most effective at helping to round off peak temperatures, if humans no longer intensively release carbon into the atmosphere, at the time that NbCS start to naturally release carbon. Otherwise NbCS are just delaying dumping a lot of carbon into the atmosphere on top of what’s still being put in through burning fossil fuel. 

3. Protecting ecosystems is much more effective than implementing new NbCS.

The majority of media attention and discussion on NbCS focuses on managing and restoring natural carbon sinks through activities like forest re-plantation and better agricultural management techniques (as guess what? People can sell these services!). However the most effective NbCS, from a climate and cost (and biodiversity) perspective, is protecting intact ecosystems. Protection-based NbCS are first in the hierarchy (see below) because they offer a high per-hectare mitigation that can be realized quickly and at a comparatively low cost per tCO2e.

Protection-based  NbCS also align with global commitments to stop deforestation, limit forest degradation and halt biodiversity loss. And the best bit? All businesses can contribute to this, by getting as high up the consumption hierarchy as possible! As economic activity is the number one driver of ecosystem change

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So what does this mean for how business engage with NbCS in decarbonisation strategies?
  • Focus on rapid decarbonisation within your business operations & wider value chain
  • Focus on reducing your contribution to land- and sea-use change across operations & wider value chain
  • Contribute to NbCS that focus on managing and restoring nature by all means, but these must be in addition and proportionate to your work reducing the contribution your business makes to fossil fuel emissions and ecosystem degradation.

If you would like to learn more about how to effectively include NbCS within a decarbonisation plan, please reach out at hello@bemari.co.uk

Written by Elspeth Alexander

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