Decarbonization and Nature-Based Solutions: A Winning Combo
Last week, the Kleinman Center hosted a panel of experts to discuss the implementation of nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change and achieve climate neutrality goals. At first glance, one may wonder, why is an energy policy center interested in nature-based solutions? But as the panelists explained, decarbonization and nature-based solutions go hand in hand.
As we look to a net-zero future, land sinks are a significant pathway to achieving the goal. And that is where nature-based solutions can play a role. “Land will be critical to the energy transition,” said panel moderator Matthijs Bouw of the Weitzman School of Design.
Nature could provide up to 30% of our climate solutions through protecting, managing, and restoring forests, wetlands, grasslands, and croplands. The more natural carbon sinks like mangroves and forests that are preserved around the world, the more carbon they can absorb from the atmosphere. In fact, Visiting Scholar Nathalie Seddon cited that if we scale up nature-based solutions to the maximum possible, we can reduce the total CO2 in the atmosphere by around 10 gigatons a year.
Not only does this make sense in terms of tackling the climate crisis, but it also makes sense economically. For example, the long-term benefits of mangroves can be up to 10 times the cost. And, as Seddon mentioned, for every $1 million invested in U.S. coastal habitation, 40 new jobs are created. Exploring these natural solutions seems like a win-win.
Like all big ideas, nature-based solutions face implementation challenges and funding bottlenecks. Panelists Mónica Altamirano of Deltares and Carolyn Kousky of the Wharton Risk Center both discussed different avenues for investment, potentially from government, community, or cooperate entities. And illustrated how interest in this area of study is growing worldwide.
But one of the major drawbacks of nature-based solutions is that it could distract us from what needs to be our critical climate goal: phasing out fossil fuels and decarbonizing our world. While nature can provide a lot of very helpful solutions to our climate crisis, it is not a silver bullet. Nature-based solutions can never completely close the gap between our emission levels today and where our emissions need to be to reach our climate goals. Plus, if we continue to warm the planet, the additional warming will limit the potential of nature to achieve the optimal level of CO2 reduction.
While achieving a nearly 30% reduction in CO2 from human activity is possible through nature-based solutions, Seddon stressed that this must be done in tandem with the rapid and aggressive decarbonization of the global economy. “You can’t have your 27% without also having the 70% that you can only achieve through decarbonization. Because if you don’t, the resulting warming will prevent ecosystems from providing these benefits,” said Seddon.
As we dive further into the energy transition, nature-based solutions are just one more tool in our toolbelt. While the potential of nature-based solutions is promising, it cannot be an excuse to carry on with business-as-usual energy practices. But if we protect, or enhance, our land and ocean carbon sinks, while also reducing emissions, we can put ourselves on a path to a more promising future.