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Mangroves from the air.

World - Can nature help us get to net-zero and tackle climate change? Climate change

With her ability to absorb and store CO2, Mother Nature can be a great ally in the fight against climate change. But if her biodiversity continues to be destroyed and her ecosystems degraded then Mother Nature may turn on us instead.

Let’s be realistic. While we must do all we can to minimize levels in the atmosphere, we are never going to eliminate all carbon emissions. Many industries are difficult to decarbonize due to their need for extreme heat in blast furnaces – like iron, steel and glass manufacture. Others, like cement production, rely on a chemical reaction that produces carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product. Meanwhile the technology required to decarbonize shipping and air travel – through electrification or with new fuels like green hydrogen– is still decades away.

It means that if we’re to achieve net-zero, we need to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we pump into it. We can’t wait for future clean fuels and other green technologies to be developed and scaled. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes that simply preventing, reducing or eliminating sources of greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) and ideally to 1.5°C. Instead, all of the IPCC’s scenarios that keep global warming within that range rely on large-scale CO2 removal.

Thankfully we have an ally on our side: Mother Nature. And she provides some powerful carbon sinks, which remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. The best known are trees, which absorb CO2 in the atmosphere through photosynthesis then lock it up for their lifetime. But with current rates of deforestation, we are exacerbating the problem – as dead trees release the carbon they store!

Biodiversity

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But there are other powerful natural carbon sinks, such as wetlands, soils and the oceans. In fact, without these land and ocean carbon sinks, atmospheric CO2 levels would be almost 50 percent higher and close to 600 parts per million(ppm), compared to the annual average of 415ppm in 2021. An atmospheric CO2 level of 600ppm is well above the level compatible with a 2°C future.

Will nature turn on us?

But if we’re not careful, nature could become our foe and not our ally in the fight against climate change.

Take for instance, peatlands. They are one of nature’s most effective carbon sinks and – despite covering just 3 percent of Earth’s land surface – store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. But drained peatlands – often undertaken for urban or agricultural expansion – are responsible for about 4 percent of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse emissions. This highlights the urgent need to conserve intact peatlands and restore those that have been degraded through a process called “rewetting.”

But perhaps the most worrying development is that the Amazon rainforest – considered as having a pivotal role in the climate crisis – has been found by scientists to be emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Research found that decades of deforestation had reduced the Amazon’s capacity for removing CO2 to 0.5 billion tonnes a year between 2010 and 2018. Meanwhile fires – many deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production – emit 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2. The 1 billion tonnes left in the atmosphere is equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan, the world’s fifth-biggest polluter.

In fact, according to the IPCC, “agriculture, forestry and other land use” accounts for 23 percent of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Including 13 percent of CO2, 44 percent of methane and 82 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.

It appears that our actions are turning nature against us.

Will nature turn on us?

But if we’re not careful, nature could become our foe and not our ally in the fight against climate change.

Take for instance, peatlands. They are one of nature’s most effective carbon sinks and – despite covering just 3 percent of Earth’s land surface – store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. But drained peatlands – often undertaken for urban or agricultural expansion – are responsible for about 4 percent of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse emissions. This highlights the urgent need to conserve intact peatlands and restore those that have been degraded through a process called “rewetting.”

But perhaps the most worrying development is that the Amazon rainforest – considered as having a pivotal role in the climate crisis – has been found by scientists to be emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Research found that decades of deforestation had reduced the Amazon’s capacity for removing CO2 to 0.5 billion tonnes a year between 2010 and 2018. Meanwhile fires – many deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production – emit 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2. The 1 billion tonnes left in the atmosphere is equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan, the world’s fifth-biggest polluter.

In fact, according to the IPCC, “agriculture, forestry and other land use” accounts for 23 percent of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Including 13 percent of CO2, 44 percent of methane and 82 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.

It appears that our actions are turning nature against us.

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