The “Natural Climate Solutions” paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 17, 2017, presents an insightful examination of the global potential for well-managed ecosystems to mitigate climate change. The article provides a crucial update on the global potential for natural carbon removal solutions to be expanded in order to help countries meet their Paris Agreement contributions, ultimately concluding that these solutions can play a significantly greater role than previously thought.
Even assuming substantial safeguards around food and fiber productions, the study shows a massive opportunity for the management of natural systems to avoid emissions and clean up carbon from the atmosphere. The findings indicate that through twenty distinct restoration, conservation, and land management approaches, natural climate solutions (NCS) can deliver approximately 30% more climate mitigation than previous estimates. Even limiting the analysis to solutions that cost less than $100 USD per Mg CO2e, the paper found that natural climate solutions have the capacity to mitigate 37% of emissions required by 2030 (and 20% by 2050) to meet Paris Agreement climate targets. At under a hundred dollars per ton, natural solutions are competitive with other mitigation options like renewable energy, and with a third of this potential available at under ten dollars per ton, natural solutions can radically lower the overall cost of mitigating climate change. The abatement requirements for NCS outlined by the report are contextualized through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report pathways, and aligned to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.
All of this is good news. More cost-effective climate mitigation – with greater safeguards around food, fiber, and ecological integrity – is inherently beneficial, as cheap, safe, and rapidly deployable mitigation options are few and far between. Moreover, these specific pathways offer a guide for translating nationally determined contributions (NDCs) into detailed land management strategies by mapping the geographies and scales these solutions can be deployed at.
The paper also highlights the unfortunate lack of funding dedicated to achieving this mitigation potential. Currently only 2.5% of mitigation dollars are applied to natural solutions. Although anxieties regarding the ambiguous scale and cost of natural climate mitigation are resolved with more detailed land use pathways, concerns of reversibility require policy support through clawback provisions and improved monitoring protocols. But before policy mechanisms can be effective in pursuing NDCs, financial investment must increase. On the international level, unlocking the potential of NSC will require significantly greater monetary commitments, especially through payment into the UNFCCC's Green Climate and Least Developed Countries Funds. On a domestic level, increasing funds for restoration or conservation projects can offer a variety of ecosystem services, employment opportunities, and health benefits.
Natural climate solutions, however, simply cannot uphold a third of global NDCs with funding that is an order of magnitude lower than that of technological mitigation. The key takeaway from this paper must be that while the opportunity presented in NCS is more significant than previously thought, funds dedicated to NCS must match this potential.