Despite overwhelming evidence that climate breakdown is already in progress, and the global consensus that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement, action from governments and corporations still lags far behind what’s necessary to keep the planet below a 2℃ threshold of warming, and nowhere near what’s required to stay below the 1.5℃ target that many developing nations believe is needed for their very survival.
But we can still bridge the gap between what’s been promised to date and what scientific consensus says is required. Many of the actions that countries and corporations can take are not a mystery. National governments around the world are already embarking upon pathways toward a low-carbon future. Many of these pathways show tremendous promise, and if they are scaled up and replicated across more geographies, we might see meaningful emissions reductions and a better long-term forecast for our rapidly warming planet.
Most efforts and funding to date have been focused on accelerating the transition to clean energy and improving energy efficiency. We can’t tackle climate change without transforming our energy systems—but it’s just as urgent to harness the power of natural landscapes that can both reduce climate impacts and mitigate further carbon emissions.
That’s why The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is committed to advancing a comprehensive suite of innovative, science-based solutions for optimizing the policy levers, financial tools, nature-based technologies, and smart development necessary to minimize temperature rise and climate-related impacts to communities.
Most importantly, these climate actions represent opportunities that both the private and the public sectors can employ right now. The five solutions in this playbook are already providing real, tangible benefits for people and nature around the world, and they show that a diversity of ambitious approaches are available to suit different geographies and capacities.
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Successful initiatives at the local, national and global levels have shown that policy efforts—a combination of strategic incentives, mandates and funding—can accelerate our transition to a more sustainable path for people and nature. The technology and tools to limit climate change already exist: now what’s needed is the political will to bring these solutions to scale—and fast.
Economists across the political spectrum generally agree on the easiest and cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—putting a price on carbon. A well-designed carbon tax could be relatively straightforward to administer and would incentivize new technologies that accelerate the transition to cleaner energy. And if swapped for another tax—for example, a reduction in the corporate tax rate—it could even help grow national economies.
Earlier in 2019, Canada became the latest country to implement a national price on carbon, joining nearly 40 other countries that either have a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade model. Great Britain’s initiative shows such policies have great potential: since implementing a carbon tax in 2013, the country has minimized coal power generation and slashed its energy emissions significantly.
Other major emitters, including the United States, are building support for national legislation in both the public and private sectors. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has driven energy emissions down 40 percent in the northeast and mid-Atlantic United States, where an approach of similar scale for transportation emissions is gaining traction. There are many ways to frame smart carbon pricing policies, and TNC is committed to helping identify solutions that can garner support in countries and communities around the world.
Clean Energy and Emissions Mandates
Although renewable energy options for obtaining electric power have sparked interest for years, they have often been dismissed as somewhat costly and unpredictable. Because the sun doesn’t always shine, wind doesn’t always blow, and coal and natural gas produced much cheaper and more reliable power, renewables had little market traction.
But it’s a new day, and technology has advanced accordingly. Solar panels and wind turbines now produce more energy more efficiently. Battery technology now permits renewable installations that utilize solar-plus-storage or wind-plus-storage to send electric power to the marketplace at costs that rival fossil fuels—including natural gas. And innovators are continually investigating new potential renewable energy sources to tap, including geothermal and wave action.
The next decade will likely see a reinvention of how we generate, store, transmit and use electric power. But new infrastructure, new business models and new energy services are needed for the global economy to reap the full benefit of these opportunities.
With the success of state-level renewable portfolio standards in the United States, many state governments have recently ramped up their efforts in hopes of achieving emissions reductions in line with international climate goals. These have come in the form of either: 1) new mandates for emissions-free electricity, with a long-term goal of 100 percent; or 2) mandates for driving economy-wide emissions toward net-zero, which would allow for carbon capture and natural climate solutions to play a significant role.
Electrification and Grid Modernization
Clean energy resources lead to lower emissions, increase consumer choice, and create jobs. But to effectively deploy these innovative resources—and to meet increasing demand for electricity without further harming public health or our environment—the electric grid must be modernized.
A modern grid enables communities to scale up the use of clean, efficient energy resources that improve resiliency, reliability, security, sustainability and financial benefits for consumers. Such updates often require government action—both comprehensive infrastructure legislation and the fiscal appropriations cycles can present important opportunities for new investment.
In addition to modernizing the electric grid, transitioning toward electric vehicles can drive progress toward renewable and other zero-carbon energy resources and leverage the progress already made in reducing emissions from the electric power sector. TNC has supported efforts in the U.S. at the state and federal level to provide greater incentives for electric vehicles, investments in charging infrastructure, tax incentives for energy storage, increases in energy efficiency and demand response, and research and development into technologies that will reduce emissions from the electricity, transportation and industrial sectors.
Global leadership in energy innovation has advanced a number of clean energy priorities over the past several decades, but ambitious investment is necessary to accelerate the transformation of the energy sector. Worldwide, public investment has helped nations establish new and lucrative domestic industries, create millions of well-paying jobs, increase energy security, enhance global influence, and reduce emissions. While these are impressive returns on investment, there is still enormous untapped potential in this sector.
Robust and well-directed government funding is needed for vital research, development, and demonstration activities. Subsidized development continues to cut the costs of advanced wind, solar, storage, and other next-generation renewable technologies; improve the efficiency of buildings, power plants, light and heavy-duty vehicles, electric grids, and manufacturing processes and facilities; accelerate the development of low-carbon fuels and resilient, economical nuclear energy technologies; and unlock opportunities to capture carbon, store it, or use it to make valuable products.
Investing in Nature-Based Solutions
According to a report by the World Meteorological Organization, extreme weather and climate events impacted 62 million people around the world in 2018, displacing more than two million from their homes. Flooding alone affected 37 million people.
The trends are clear: climate change is exacerbating the destruction wrought by many extreme weather events—from seasonal flooding and drought to hurricanes and wildfires. And too often, existing infrastructure is failing to stand up to this intensifying pressure, resulting in catastrophic loss of life and livelihoods.
In order to mitigate these increasing risks, there is tremendous need to invest in building, repairing and enhancing investments in all types of infrastructure. This includes broad implementation of natural infrastructure—such as wetlands, living shorelines and oyster reefs. Whether used alone or with gray infrastructure, these ecosystems deliver cost-effective, nature-based solutions for growing infrastructure demands.
What’s more, the protection and restoration of key ecosystems generates significant co-benefits for nature and coastal communities not within the scope of standard gray infrastructure. While fostering more resilient and sustainable economies, natural infrastructure can also reduce flood risk, alleviate pollution and create breeding habitat for marine life.
Many governments can enable investment in nature-based solutions through disaster mitigation and response funding to unlock the suite of environmental and economic benefits science has demonstrated to be possible. And the sooner restoration and protection begins, the more likely nature can offer such ecosystem services effectively well into the future.
Transforming the systems that are driving the climate crisis will require substantial funding, but the consequences of inaction are costly, too. Fortunately, many innovative finance models have emerged to facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, and even create new market opportunities for investment in nature—and the communities that depend upon a diversity of critical ecosystems around the world.
Blue Bonds for Conservation
The impacts of climate change, compounded by other threats like pollution and overfishing, have put the ocean in a dire state. Increasingly severe storms and ocean acidity are pushing coral reefs to the brink of extinction, and the loss of those reefs and other coastal habitats—such as wetlands, mangroves and shellfish reefs—are matters of life and death for many island and coastal nations.
Leaders of these nations want to protect the ocean—but too often they are struggling to manage their countries’ debt and unable to invest in the conservation efforts that would make their environments and economies more sustainable and resilient.
Blue Bonds for Conservation are an opportunity for island and coastal nations to reinvest in their natural resources by refinancing their national debt in a way that secures funding for conservation work that also benefits their economies. The countries’ governments commit to protect at least 30 percent of their near-shore ocean areas, including coral reefs, mangroves and other important habitats for climate resilience, and engage in ongoing conservation work such as improving fisheries management and reducing pollution.
Then, organizations such as TNC leverage public grants and commercial capital to restructure the nations’ sovereign debt, targeting lower interest rates and longer repayment periods. A portion of those savings fund the new marine protected areas and the conservation activities to which the country has committed.
The debt conversion model that Blue Bonds are based on has already demonstrated it can produce conservation outcomes. In 2016, the Republic of Seychelles worked with TNC to restructure part of its national debt, freeing up US$430,000 per year for marine conservation. As of 2019, the government has established marine protected areas (MPAs) covering 350,000 square kilometers of ocean areas, or 26 percent of its marine territory—taking the country over halfway to its goal of protecting 30 percent of its marine territory by 2020.
Now, TNC is working to take this model to at least 20 more countries in the next five years, creating MPAs and sustainability plans that would benefit more than 40 million people and conserve 15 percent more of the world’s oceans than are currently protected.
Insuring Natural Infrastructure
Across the world, an estimated 840 million people live with the risk of coastal flooding, and the health of their economies is directly related to the health of their coastal ecosystems. Natural systems like coral reefs, beaches and wetlands are often the first line of defense against storms—a healthy coral reef can reduce up to 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore—as well as a source of economic activity, such as fishing or tourism.
But coral reefs can themselves be damaged by severe storms—especially those that have already been weakened by pollution, disease, overfishing and bleaching—which greatly reduces the protection they offer for coastal communities.
In 2005, Mexico’s Caribbean coast suffered US$8 billion in direct damages from two hurricanes, which closed many businesses long enough to cause further economic impact. But an analysis of the devastation pointed to an important exception—the region protected by an intact stretch of the Mesoamerican coral reef system withstood the storms better than other areas.
This insight helped lead to the development of The Coastal Zone Management Trust, via collaboration between the State Government of Quintana Roo in Mexico, TNC and partners in the science community.
The trust will receive taxes, collected by the tourism industry, that can be used to fund maintenance and restoration efforts for 60 kilometers of reef and beaches in the Cancún and Puerto Morelos areas. In addition to funding ongoing conservation work, the trust will also be used to purchase an insurance policy which will be triggered when severe weather hits the area of reef, as reefs can be damaged in when wind speeds exceed approximately 100 knots. The released funds can then be used for restoration activities to help the reef recover—and return to its full protective capacity—more quickly.
This first-of-its-kind, innovative funding system will help protect a US$10 billion tourism industry; improve climate resilience and bolster the region’s economy; encourage conservation of a valuable natural asset; and create a scalable new market for the insurance industry—a model which could be applied to other regions and ecosystems across the planet.
The world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands have the capacity to both store carbon and reduce carbon emissions—if they remain healthy. In fact, natural climate solutions could deliver more than a third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030, but they currently receive less than 3.6 percent of climate finance. This untapped opportunity could not only be cost-effective: it can even be profitable.
Deforestation continues to drive climate change worldwide, causing the release of millions of tons of carbon stores each year. In 2016, the world lost over 29.7 million hectares of tree cover, an area almost as large as Italy.
Preventing deforestation requires confronting complex political and economic concerns. In particular, communities that have depended on unsustainable forest clearing may need help in developing alternative livelihoods. Establishing large-scale incentives and regulatory mechanisms can address major sources of global deforestation, such as cattle ranching in the Amazon or palm oil production in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, a 2016 moratorium on the drainage of peat forests led to a 60 percent drop in deforestation in the space of a year, which is an emissions reduction of 200 million tons of carbon dioxide. In Brazil, better forest governance, satellite monitoring, and enforcement of soy and beef related deforestation helped reduce rates 70 percent between 2005 and 2013. Brazil’s “deforestation deceleration” alone helped prevent the emissions of 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And while recent political changes have slowed efforts to protect against deforestation in Brazil and other key geographies, the blueprint remains to provide real mitigation impact.
Focusing on single regions will not be enough, however. When forest loss is averted in one region, it is often “transplanted” to another part of the world. To prevent deforestation, we must take an integrated, global approach. But these regional success stories could pave the way for an international approach to end deforestation.
Reforestation is the single largest nature-based climate mitigation opportunity worldwide. What’s more, it’s an easy sell: landscape restoration offers co-benefits including cleaner water, cleaner air, flood control, and more fertile soils, as well as the potential for new sustainable economic activities.
Huge swaths of temperate and tropical forests have been cleared and converted for activities such as agriculture and forestry operations. But today, many of these degraded lands lie fallow, creating prime real estate for cost-effective reforestation. Reforesting these degraded lands would sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide without disrupting food production.
In some cases, reforestation is as simple as refraining from burning marginal grazing land, allowing forests to regenerate naturally. In others, reforestation can require active planting of trees and long-term care as they grow—a more expensive form of land-based sequestration. But we can leverage even this higher-cost opportunity by creating financial incentives to plant trees—billions of them—and creating new markets for more sustainable timber and forest products.
Managing Forests Responsibly
Halting all logging in forests would achieve maximum carbon sequestration, but the value many wood products contribute to human lives and livelihoods may preclude a categoric end to logging. Fortunately, simply improving forest management practices can take countries a long way toward reaching climate goals.
Extending harvest cycles, for example, allows trees to grow more before they’re felled, increasing the average carbon stock across a working forest. Reduced-impact logging practices like cable winching can avoid damage to unharvested trees. And competing vegetation can be thinned to allow trees to grow faster and bigger. These techniques not only allow working forests to sequester more carbon, but can even increase timber yields—which could help protect sensitive areas, like tropical forests, from exploitation. Some 1.9 billion hectares of wood-production forest worldwide, an area twice the size of the United States, stand to benefit.
Innovative markets for carbon, water quality and biodiversity create mechanisms to express the economic value of forests beyond revenues from timber harvesting. These platforms encourage ecological and financial diversification, as evidenced by a new forest management project in the coal fields region of the mid-Atlantic United States.
The Cumberland Forest Project—which protects more than 100,000 hectares of critical habitat—generates revenue sustainably with the aid of the California carbon market, Forest Stewardship Council timber certification and recreational leases. The project demonstrates how the private sector, governments and NGOs can collaborate to protect wildlife habitat, secure clean water for people and nature, and sequester atmospheric carbon to mitigate climate change, all while fostering important investments in local economies.
Improving Soil Health
Improving soil health on agricultural land can generate conservation and economic benefits, as well as mitigate the growing threat of climate change. Healthy soil is the cornerstone of life on earth, facilitating ecosystem biodiversity, ample food production, effective water filtration and storage, and carbon sequestration.
Technological advancements in agricultural in the past century have allowed farmers to feed a population that has grown from less than two billion people to more than seven billion today. Over the same time period, however, soil managed for agricultural purposes has degraded, losing as much as 60 percent of its original organic carbon content in the United States alone.
But we can feed people and maintain soil carbon. In fact, better soil management provides many tangible environmental and financial benefits and opportunities for farmers and agricultural producers. Improving infiltration and water-holding capacity, for example, can significantly reduce irrigation water needs, lessen dust pollution, and improve nutrient uptake by plants. These improvements can in turn reduce input costs, plant stress, disease and pest pressure. And over time, that can mean an increase in crop yields and quality.
In fact, a 2015 TNC study on U.S. soil health suggests that adopting soil health practices on all U.S. corn, soy and wheat croplands could deliver nearly US$50 billion in social and environmental impacts annually, in addition to mitigating 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent to taking five million passenger cars off the road for one year.
The ocean has absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat emitted since 1970, but not without consequences. Temperature increases impair its ability to perform essential climate regulation services on which the entire world depends. But while the breakdown of marine ecosystems affect everyone, coastal communities are especially endangered. Ocean restoration is critical for supporting both coastal resilience and the billions of people who rely upon it.
The impacts of climate change are accelerating around the world, but perhaps especially fast for islands and coastal areas. In fact, recent studies suggest that more than a thousand low-lying tropical islands risk becoming “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century, as rising seas bring battering waves, aquifers inundated with salt water and, eventually, full submergence.
Forest carbon usually attracts the limited attention given to natural climate solutions. But coastal wetlands—tidal marshes, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests—sequester billions of tons of carbon from our atmosphere at concentrations up to five times greater than terrestrial forests.
And their exceptional capacity to store greenhouse gases—often called “blue carbon” for its proximity to the sea—isn’t the only reason coastal wetlands should also be a bigger part of the climate conversation. Aside from reducing carbon emissions, wetlands protect coastlines by absorbing incoming wave energy and providing storm protection, often at lower costs than built or “gray” infrastructure such as seawalls and levees. In fact, TNC research shows natural solutions can save communities hundreds of millions of dollars when severe weather strikes, reducing flood damage by up to 29 percent.
But human pressure is compromising the health of wetlands at an alarming rate—faster than almost any other habitat. Experts estimate that the amount of carbon dioxide released annually from degraded global wetlands is roughly 450 million tons, which is more than Australia’s 2016 total emissions. If restored to their 1990 state, the world’s blue carbon systems could sequester 274 million tons more carbon annually, offsetting the burning of more than two billion barrels of oil.
Nature’s Role in Building Resilience
Nature-based solutions usually attract attention for their carbon mitigation potential, but nature can also help mitigate increasing and active climate-related risks to lives and livelihoods. In some cases, natural systems may even produce economic, environmental and safety outcomes more efficiently and effectively than traditional gray infrastructure.
In the United States, from 2005 to 2015, just five major hurricanes caused more than 2,200 deaths and some US$230 billion in damages. Average flood losses in this country have increased steadily to nearly US$10 billion annually, driving the National Flood Insurance Program US$24 billion into debt.
In many ways, the climate crisis is a water crisis—exacerbating the intensity and frequency of storms, droughts and nutrient pollution—and it is in adapting to new water challenges that nature-based solutions show particular promise.
For coastal communities, “living shorelines”—fortified wetlands, marshes, sand dunes, mangroves or coral reefs—offer a wide range of economic and environmental benefits. A healthy coral reef, for instance, can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, protecting people and property. And apart from reducing wave intensity and preventing erosion, healthier coastlines can enhance recreational opportunities, boost tourism, improve wildlife habitat and better water quality.
Many communities can also build resilience by restoring and protecting the natural landscapes surrounding their source waters. A source water protection plan may focus on sustaining native vegetation to encourage local biodiversity, which supplies ecosystem services for people and nature. For human society, the outcomes of healthier watersheds include better water quality, more reliable downstream water flows and greater food security.
Threats to water will rise with global temperatures, and governments are feeling the pressure to adapt: 115 countries that signed the Paris Agreement cite the water sector as a key concern in adapting to climate change. Many countries, especially in the Global South, link adaptation measures to the eradication of poverty and the movement of those countries toward middle-income levels of development. Nature-based solutions can help these countries adapt to present challenges and prepare for future ones, but time is of the essence: climate models show that nature can do more the sooner restoration begins.
A growing global population may require more resources, but using land strategically can ensure natural areas remain protected. Policies, planning and incentives can drive developers and investors to site new development—including energy and urban infrastructure—in the right places.
Siting on Degraded Lands
Each year, new studies warn that a growing global population may struggle to produce food, energy and housing on the earth’s finite land—much of which has been degraded by human activity.
But new research led by TNC suggests that these previously converted lands could meet Paris Agreement clean energy targets needs 17 times over—meaning new energy installations needn’t disrupt natural lands. What’s more, communities that live on lands abandoned by industries such as mining can frequently benefit from the new jobs and revenue generated by clean energy development.
Former mining lands are not always easy to reuse, as soil and water quality often remains low after closure. But many of these lands have hidden potential: for instance, in the midst of more than 600,000 hectares of former mine lands that stretch across the Central Appalachian region of the United States. TNC estimates that more than 160,000 hectares could be suitable for solar energy, enough to install dozens of gigawatts that could provide enough power to millions of homes and businesses across the region.
Revised legislation has proven to support similar initiatives elsewhere. In the state of Nevada, mining companies, renewable-energy developers and conservationists advocated for a change in regulations to allow renewable-energy siting on formerly mined lands. As the state possesses the largest hard rock (non-coal) mining industry in the United States, the decision could open thousands of hectares for development into the future. Furthermore, by providing clarity and guidance on optimal siting, policymakers can actually reduce the investment risk for new energy installations, helping to further accelerate the transition to renewables.
For conservationists, guiding the development of renewable energy toward formerly mined lands has a dual benefit of encouraging low-carbon energy while keeping large-scale renewable projects away from lands essential for wildlife. New clean energy construction is a critical part of the climate solution, but avoiding natural lands means preventing further damage to nature, which is also crucial ally in climate action.
Urban Planning for Climate Change
Cities are growing rapidly, and this continued growth could have an unprecedented impact on nature. Meanwhile, urban residents face unique threats from rising global temperatures, especially those near vulnerable coastlines.
Globally, estimates suggest that urban populations will expand by 2.4 billion people in the coming decades—a rate equivalent to building a new London every seven weeks. TNC research shows that urban growth, if not carefully planned, could destroy habitat that stores an estimated 4.35 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from more than 930 million cars for one year.
Planning for urban nature at scale has the potential to transform cities, making urban areas a part of the global solution. Incorporating natural areas in and near cities provides critical habitat for wildlife, helps reduce dangerous heat, and protects natural carbon storage that could help mitigate climate change, keeping the annual emissions from hundreds of millions of cars out of the atmosphere.
For local governments to realize their potential as protagonists for climate action, national and international institutions must work to collaborate with city leaders. City leaders also need to look proactively at the full range of benefits generated by biodiversity and ecosystem services, and bring together disparate departments, including public health, in order to create effective “greenprints” for urban growth that integrate natural areas within urban areas.
International funders, such as the Global Environmental Facility and the Green Climate Fund, can support sustainable urban growth by appropriating funding to mitigate the impact of urban growth on biodiversity and ecosystem services. But, crucially, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity must take the time between now and 2020 to determine what urban conservation efforts are needed to meet the challenges ahead—including specific goals like urban growth targets or urban-based metrics that measure progress against the Aichi targets.