ABeing an environmentalist, the most common question I get is: Can nature really help fight climate change? The short answer is yes. Nature conservation and revitalization can contribute up to a third from ours climate goals.
My concern, however, is that the question is phrased backwards. Because for me, one of the main goals of climate action is the revival of nature. But when carbon sequestration becomes the sole motivation for promoting nature, the consequences can be dangerous for both parties.
In nature, long-term carbon sequestration occurs only as a by-product of healthy biodiversity.
As an early-career researcher, one of my favorite studies involved two fungi fighting for space in a petri dish. In many cases, one mushroom defeats its opponent and the system crashes. However, when we introduced a third species, it often fought the dominant competitor, allowing the weaker species to survive. It’s a rock-scissors-paper system (where the enemy of my enemy is my friend), and when we introduced a fourth, fifth, and sixth mushroom, the chances of finding these competing chains increased. The more species we included, the better the chances of all species surviving.
This “impassable competition” is one of the myriad ecological mechanisms by which diversity breeds diversity in natural systems. Biodiversity is the endless web of interactions that gives rise to healthy nature, where each species needs other species to survive.
This includes people. We could not breathe the air that existed on this planet before complex life formed. All the food, water, medicine, textiles and timber we use can ultimately be traced back to nature. As Nature Finance CEO Simon Zadek explains, 100% of the economy is 100% dependent on nature. Nature is the inspiration and wonder that underlies every culture. And yes, natural ecosystems too sequester trillions of tons of carbon over millions of years.
The problem is that we have built markets that value certain parts of nature more highly than others. Historically, these were the parts we could use for things like food, medicine, lumber, and textiles. As a result, we have extracted and propagated these parts of biodiversity on a massive scale into a patchwork of monocultures that we grow at the expense of everything else.
This development facilitated the growth of the human population. However, the loss of complex biodiversity has also contributed to most of the global threats facing humanity, including food insecurity, global pandemicsand climate change. In a speech at the 2006 Charles Sauriol Environmental Dinner, Margaret Atwood likened mankind to King Midas, turning everything he touched into gold before eventually starving to death. The more we value an abstraction of nature, the more we endanger our own survival.
With the growing fear of climate change, we are now in danger of doing exactly the same by building markets to encourage carbon sequestration in natural systems. If carbon becomes the part of nature that we value most, then people are incentivized to plant monocultures of fast-growing trees (or carbon farms) that grow at the expense of everything else. Unfortunately, this is what we see happening in many parts of the world. The UN appreciates this almost half of the planted forests there are monoculture carbon farms around the world that are devastating to local biodiversity and the people who depend on it.
Also, the fear surrounding using trees to capture carbon is that it could be a distraction from decarbonisation efforts because some companies see planting trees as a way to offset their emissions. This year, the 20 largest oil and gas companies have announced spending plans $930 billion in new fossil fuel development by 2030. No amount of natural “offsetting” could ever offset the carbon emissions that will result.
That’s why countless media articles ran headlines like “Trees are overrated” and “Planting new forests can do more harm than good.” These contradictions are the cause of Greenpeace and other environmentalists NGOs called for an end to nature-based solutionsand why all the references to nature-based solutions were cleared by the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP 26 in 2021. Confidence in nature-based solutions remains low, which continues to limit investments in nature.
But trees and nature are not a problem. The problem is our misuse of them, which stems from the same problem we’ve always had: Financial systems that value each individual part of nature (carbon or any individual ecosystem service) over the others always run the risk of incentivizing an oversimplification of biodiversity .
Solving this problem does not mean stopping investment in nature. It means changing our perspectives so that we don’t value one part of nature above all others. Instead, we need economic systems that value the full complexity of nature and human well-being.
The only key to success conservation and restoration initiatives when healthy biodiversity becomes an economically viable option for local communities. If you explore the thousands of conservation and restoration projects around the world in Eco restaurant platform, this is immediately clear. When projects focus primarily on biodiversity and human well-being, then successful initiatives will capture carbon in the long term as a by-product.
For many communities, balancing this equation is possible because promoting biodiversity can increase the value of natural products, even within existing market structures. This happens when protecting native plant species promotes productivity of agroforestry systems, or when the protection of local ecosystems allows sustainable ecotourism. But for many others, existing market systems simply do not do enough to value complex biodiversity.
For this reason, I am excited about the emergence of financial systems that are specifically designed to value and promote healthy biodiversity. The economies of the world, incl Australia, EU, UK, Ecuador, Gabon, Maldives and Canada develop financial systems to reward landowners for promoting healthy biodiversity. With countless mechanisms emerging, recent analyzes show that globally the value of new business opportunities in this sector is estimated to be as high as $4.5 trillion a year by 2030, of which $730 billion refers directly to the protection and restoration of ecosystems. With ‘Nature Positive’ gaining political momentum, governments and companies could be further incentivized to set goals around healthy biodiversity and human well-being, in addition to their ‘net zero’ carbon targets.
The enormous potential of biodiversity markets is also associated with significant risks. These markets will fail if they generate a false sense of equivalence between different parts of natureor to allow investors to compensate for their damages unmatched ecosystems. But from an ecological point of view, it is extremely important to learn from past failures and avoid the temptation to value any abstractions of nature above the rest of the ecological system.
For the first time in history, ecologists worldwide now have access to data on the genetic, species and structural complexity of ecosystems around the world. Management and regulatory systems must be built to take advantage of this emerging wealth of ecological knowledge to promote the health and complexity of biodiversity. If these systems can redistribute nature’s wealth more fairly to the people who are most dependent on it, then they have the potential to be transformative.
We have oversimplified our planet. For a sustainable future, we need to bring back biocomplexity. Achieving this on a global scale could have long-term benefits for carbon sequestration, but more importantly, it would improve the sustainability of life on Earth.
A healthy nature is not just a tool in the fight against climate change. This is the reason we want to address it in the first place, because it is the essence of life on Earth.
MSNBC Films presents “From the Devil’s Breath” from Oscar®-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Leonardo DiCaprio. The film, part of the documentary series The Turning Point, executive produced by Trevor Noah and co-produced by TIME Studios, focuses on the devastating wildfires in Portugal in 2017, now streaming on Peacock.
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