Harnessing the power of nature in the fight against climate change

Climate Change UN Tanzania

(United Nations Tanzania, 2013)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Florian Reber, Strategy Lead, South Pole

If we are to solve our global climate and development challenges, we will need nature’s help. Healthy forests, soils and mangroves are not only important allies for addressing our global food security conundrum, they are also critical carbon sinks: storing CO2 is their daily business. New research suggests that up to 37% of the vast emission reductions required by 2030 if we are to give ourselves a chance of avoiding dangerous and costly climate change in the long-term could be delivered by these natural climate champions.

Meanwhile, our dominant growth and development paradigm continues to degrade them at alarming rates: the Amazon is at risk of becoming a savannah if deforestation is not halted, a third of all arable land has been lost over the past 40 years, and 67% of all mangroves are now lost or degraded according to IUCN.

The recent heatwave has shown how vulnerable those ecosystems are, with burning forests, bleached coral reefs and dried out riverbeds making the headlines. Despite the media attention, transformative action to turn the tide from degradation to restoration and protection is still not happening fast enough. Yes, important progress has been made, including numerous companies making ambitious and far-reaching commitments at the board-level. But it’s the implementation of those commitments which are most challenging.

Those who take action often also see the opportunities this presents as well as the risks. Indeed, a recent study found that the restoration of degraded lands and the valuation of forest ecosystem services are among the biggest sustainable development investment opportunities in the food and agriculture sector, together accounting for up $450 billion by 2030. The realization of these opportunities obviously requires much more than commitment. Here are four positive developments that suggest a move to broader, more systemic change.

Shared agendas across the public and private sectors

The proliferation of international initiatives and high-level dialogues across both public and private sectors is facilitating the emergence of shared agendas. This is crucial, as realising sustainable land use and harnessing the natural climate solutions it offers is a complex social and governance challenge. Creating the necessary trust across communities, governments and the private sector requires dialogue – and time. Platforms such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 or the Food and Land Use Coalition offer the space for crafting such shared action-oriented agendas, anchored in a shared vision for sustainable development outcomes.

New accounting and reporting standards

Boosted by the zero-deforestation agenda and in recognition of the important climate impact of agricultural supply chains, companies have made significant commitments to reducing emissions within their supply chains, including land and forest-related emissions. The leadership of those companies has catalysed innovation and impacts on various fronts, including much-needed new accounting standards for credibly measuring, attributing and reporting the achieved emission reductions. The work led by the Gold Standard and a coalition of companies and technical experts to develop new Guidance for Value Chain Greenhouse Gas Accounting and Reporting is an important step towards creating the required level playing field.

Carbon markets are on the rise again

As a consequence of the voluntary commitments and new compliance markets, such as the one launched in Colombia recently, carbon market activity is increasing dramatically. From 2016 to 2017, the retirement of voluntary carbon offsets increased by 71% to reach a new record saving of 62.7 million tonnes of CO2. Among those, land use and forestry based carbon offsets are among the most sought after in the market.

These figures point to the attractiveness of forest and land-based carbon offsets to voluntary and pre-compliance buyers alike. To keep up the momentum, feeding the potential of carbon markets in the above-mentioned programmes for landscape-level sustainability is a good opportunity for harnessing the potential of this growing market.

More data for investors looking to understand risks

Last but not least, the financial sector has woken up to the risk that climate change, shifting market preferences and climate policies can negatively impact the value of land-based assets – potentially even leading to asset stranding in some cases. The recommendations of the Task-Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure have played an important role in catalysing innovation on this topic. Today, climate leaders within the financial sector are applying scenario-based climate risk assessments across sectors and geographies. This improved understanding of at-risk assets is critical for shifting capital towards activities that support sustainable land use.

In Ernest Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises, the character Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly,” he replies. The quote is often used in relation to looming tipping points. It feels like we are now at a critically important moment in time, where we need collective and individual will and leadership to harness the opportunities that have emerged. Doing so could help 2018 be remembered not just as the year when climate impacts became visible to masses of people around the world, but also as the year when climate action went mainstream.

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