The climate crisis can often feel like an almost overwhelming challenge. But those of us in the movement for solutions know there’s plenty we can do to end this crisis.
From cutting our fossil fuel addiction by transitioning our economies to renewables like wind and solar to going all in on energy efficiency, green buildings, and clean energy jobs, everyone has a role to play in a better, more sustainable tomorrow.
Including Mother Nature.
That’s right, in addition to the many modern fixes we need to right the ship, there are several all-natural climate solutions, so to speak, that can help us get where we need to go by helping pull the carbon pollution driving the climate crisis out of the atmosphere and put it back where it belongs – in the ground.
Indeed, through “conservation, restoration, and improved land management interventions on natural and agricultural lands—to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” we could remove as much as 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual carbon pollution, equivalent to nearly all emissions from cars and trucks on US roads, from the atmosphere.
Sounds pretty good to us!
What Are Natural Climate Solutions?
Natural climate solutions are non-technological ways we can reduce emissions and remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere and store it in natural ecosystems like forests, grasslands, and coastal wetlands. They present an opportunity to leverage the natural world around us to restore the balance we’ve upset by pumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
Our natural ecosystems — such as forest and croplands — already contain vast amounts of carbon, but they can sequester even more. And in many circumstances they present a win-win across the board: not only do they help reduce the fossil fuel carbon pollution driving the climate crisis, techniques such as regenerative agriculture improve the health of soils, providing a boon to farms in the form of improved ecosystem health and crop productivity, and reforestation can enhance local communities’ resilience against climate change events like extreme weather by, among other things, lessening attendant impacts from excessive rainfall like mudslides.
>> Learn more: What is Regenerative Agriculture? <<
They also make space for new processes and technologies to arise that can further reduce carbon pollution, such sustainable wood production techniques like cross-laminated timber (CLT), which “has the potential to substantially reduce the carbon footprint of new buildings by replacing structural concrete.”
Importantly, they offer carbon capture at a remarkably low price of about $10 per metric ton of carbon pollution — or 127,512 iPhones charged for every one ton.
Yet, many continue to rest their hopes on non-natural methods like direct carbon capture, which have yet to be proven cost-effective and are nowhere near the scale they need to be to have a real impact (and likely won’t be anytime soon).
These methods need to be further researched and developed, there’s no doubt about it. With sufficient research and development investments, innovation in carbon capture technology could present a breakthrough that makes it more cost-effective and deployable at-scale. So we should be exploring it. But the point is, our primary focus for the present, and the foreseeable future, should be to employ natural sequestration methods that we know work and have available to us right now.
They may not have the sci-fi appeal or the dramatic, quick(er)-fix potential of something like direct carbon capture, but they are an important start that could have a real impact. And as part of a plan that also draws down the emissions driving the climate crisis, they could play a pivotal role in restoring balance to the planet.
The Power of the Forest
Reforestation is the single largest nature-based climate mitigation opportunity we have.
Research has shown that our forests alone have the potential to remove the emissions from about 155 million cars from the atmosphere – and reforesting previously forested lands has the potential to eliminate the emissions of nearly 65 million passenger cars alone.
Additional benefits of reforestation include cleaner water, cleaner air, flood control, more fertile soils, and increased economic opportunity, particularly in rural areas.
"Planting trees and improving the health of existing forests will be a deciding factor in whether we are able to get ahead of the climate curve," Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, told Phys.org.
Aside from forest restoration, other high-performing forest solutions include allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage, and increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of mega-fires.
Better forest and fire management is essential to keeping carbon where it belongs. As we’ve seen in the American West in the last several years, wildfires are getting worse and worse. The reasons why are pretty simple science.
Without any action taken, there will be more, and more severe, wildfires – allowing more already sequestered carbon to escape into the atmosphere. Luckily, we’re already seeing a shift in national fire management and restoration techniques to reduce the threat of wildfires.
Grasslands and Soil
Forests are just the starting point. A greatly underappreciated source for carbon storage is our grasslands and agricultural spaces.
Indeed, given the increased wildfire risk in our warming world, grasslands may be even more effective carbon sinks than forests.
“Unlike forests, grasslands sequester most of their carbon underground, while forests store it mostly in woody biomass and leaves. When wildfires cause trees to go up in flames, the burned carbon they formerly stored is released back to the atmosphere,” the University of California, Davis explains. “When fire burns grasslands, however, the carbon fixed underground tends to stay in the roots and soil, making them more adaptive to climate change.”
Cover cropping is another important natural solution for open spaces. A cover crop is a crop that is grown and not intended for harvest that protects and enriches the soil. When bare soil is exposed between plantings or tilled, the carbon stored in the soil is lost to the atmosphere. But cover crops have the potential to both increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil and improve the soil’s fertility, resulting in increased crop yields and yield consistency.
In the United States, cover cropping is becoming more and more common, which is no surprise given that the 2018 Farm Bill incentivizes more climate-friendly agricultural practices.
Habitat Restoration and Wetlands
Alongside forests and grasslands, our wetlands — both freshwater and coastal — offer great potential for capturing and storing carbon naturally.
Wetlands can store carbon at particularly high rates per hectare. For example, salt marsh and mangrove swamps suck up carbon 40 times faster than forests do.
Coastal habitat restoration alone could mitigate the emissions from 5 million cars.
In addition to providing a valuable carbon sink, coastal wetland restoration can also help us mitigate emissions from a particularly powerful greenhouse gas: methane.
In the atmosphere, compared to carbon, methane is fairly short-lived: only about 20 percent of the methane emitted today will still be in the atmosphere after 20 years. However, when it first enters the atmosphere, it’s around 120 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat and 86 times stronger over a 20-year period.
In the United States roughly 27 percent of salt marshes are disconnected from the ocean and are prone to freshwater inundation, which releases methane. This happens because the lack of sulfates (salt) in freshwater changes the way bacteria in the soil breaks down plant life and this new process produces more methane as a result.
But by reconnecting these marshes to their respective bodies of water, not only will more carbon be captured, but a third of global methane emissions could be eliminated too.
And just as it is with forests, grasslands, and agricultural lands, the natural solutions for wetlands provide significant benefits to the communities around them. The restoration of wetlands will provide fishing communities with stability vital for fish nurseries and populations, while also protecting coastal homes from flooding.
Still Requires More from Us
Natural climate solutions will not get us all the way to a climate-safe future alone.
The push to protect and enhance nature’s role in the climate fight needs to happen alongside major transitions in energy, transportation, and food systems.
But natural solutions like these offer a low-cost, high-potential solution in which carbon emissions can be taken out of the air and stored.
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