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Nature: Our Best Climate Technology?

February 2017

Intelligence Squared 2017

Despite the geopolitical shakeups of the last six months, international agreement on the need for climate action remains strong. Just last week the UK government released its Brexit White Paper, which included assurances that the nation will remain a "leading actor" on climate change and environmental policy. Concerns about commitment from the United States, too, may be partially allayed by the “Conservative Climate Solution” plan announced yesterday by a group of senior Republican leaders.

The question remains, though, of how to achieve these ambitious climate goals while also providing economic incentives.

The best climate technology is already deployed on a global scale, having been refined by nature for more than 350 million years. It combines CO2, sunlight and water to produce clean air, clean water and healthy soil in addition to products like chocolate, rayon and timber. And it’s most likely growing in your backyard—a tree.

We will never see a better carbon capture and storage technology than what nature can provide us. Capturing carbon emissions through our natural systems—our forests, wetlands and soils—is essential to addressing climate change. If we only focus on engineered solutions, we will most certainly not achieve the ambitious climate goals set forth over the last decade. As it stands, we spend ten times as much money each year on renewable energy and energy efficiency than we do on natural climate solutions. The current energy transition is set to take decades more, where natural climate solutions could provide a crucial biological bridge to a low-carbon future in the near term.

So, natural systems have been built over millions of years to sequester carbon. But carbon storage is not the only benefit nature can provide through sustainable management. Take the forestry industry. Conventional wisdom tells us that we should not be cutting down trees. But our scientists say that forests well-managed for timber can often store as much carbon as unmanaged forests. While forest management itself doesn’t fight climate change, when done right, it does provide a solution to storing carbon while also providing a sustainable supply of timber—meaning a sustainable supply of jobs and revenue that can deter the threat of conversion of forest to other land uses. For example, timber buildings can act as long-lasting carbon stores while also reducing the need for concrete and steel, which produce more than 5% of atmospheric carbon emissions.

Wood products are not the only conservation and commercial solution. Intensifying agriculture on already degraded land by increasing soil health, and restoring mangroves and wetlands also present opportunities to store carbon at scale. If these options are out there, why have we failed to tap into this solution?

On February 9th, Intelligence Squared and The Nature Conservancy will bring together some of the key leaders in this field to examine how nature itself can be harnessed to cut our carbon emissions without limiting economic progress.