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Why restoring nature is so important to limiting climate change

Countries have pooled billions of dollars to preserve rainforests and wetlands in developing nations. But they pose thorny political challenges.

Young Ethiopian girls wearing shirts depicting Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hold tree saplings as part in a national tree-planting drive in the capital Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is aiming to plant 4 billion trees to help fight climate change. Such efforts are an increasingly important part of the global effort to limit warming.
Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

A group of 27 countries met in Paris this month to raise $9.8 billion for the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program that routes money from wealthier countries to poorer ones to combat climate change.

But climate activists said it was a disappointing haul for a program critical to meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord — where countries agreed to limit warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Several European countries set the bar high and threw real money on the table. This is a good start but in no way adequate to meet the needs on the ground,” said Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network, in a statement. “Countries who pledged below their fair share and failed to live up to their obligations must urgently top up their contributions.”

The fundraising came just before the United States, the second-largest emitter in the world, announced its intent to file the formal paperwork to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, making it the only country in the world to back out of the deal.

Hitting the Paris targets requires the whole world to take action, but not every country has the resources to do so. And motivating every country requires addressing the fundamental injustice of climate change, that the nations that contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most. Many less-developed countries are also counting on cheap energy from fossil fuels to grow their economies and are reluctant to commit to caps on greenhouse gases. Rather, countries like India and China argue that the biggest historical emitters should be making the most aggressive reductions and financing the transition to clean energy in poorer areas.

A socket at Green Climate Fund stand on the last day of COP 24, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Green Climate Fund is an important international mechanism to route money from wealthier countries to less developed nations.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Programs like the GCF are intended to commit countries that have benefited the most from burning fossil fuels to use their wealth to aid countries that have fewer resources — and that stand to face climate-change consequences like worsening extreme weather and rising seas.

This can take the form of grants, loans, and loan guarantees for projects like building seawalls or deploying renewable energy. While the amount of money proffered so far disappointed campaigners, both donors and recipients say they are focusing on strategy that could offer the most bang for the buck: using nature to mitigate and adapt to warming.

Nature-based solutions were a major theme during the United Nations Climate Action Summit, an international meeting in September to prod countries to do more to fight climate change. Though the summit failed to deliver the commitments for big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that UN Secretary-General António Guterres wanted when he convened the event, countries pledged more money to preserve forests, restore wetlands, and deploy sustainable agriculture practices in developing countries.

Protecting pristine nature or allowing it to recover from human development are essential tactics for fighting climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported earlier this year that destructive patterns of land use account for 23 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Of this, deforestation and forest degradation account for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That means stopping these losses and reversing them would take a massive bite out of humanity’s contributions to climate change.

However, natural climate solutions are not as simple as planting more trees; these tactics require rigorous accounting and monitoring on the ground, adding to their cost and complexity. Nature also can’t simply compensate for all the greenhouse gases we emit, so drastic reductions in emissions in tandem are still essential. And when they involve wealthy countries deciding what to do with land in developing countries, these projects raise thorny political issues around social justice, national sovereignty, and which country gets to claim credit for emissions reductions.

Yet even with these difficulties, donor countries say that international climate financing for nature preservation and restoration is essential and are counting on these programs to meet their own targets to curb emissions. Countries like France, Sweden, South Korea, and the United Kingdom pledged to increase funding for these efforts during the climate summit and are nudging other countries to do so as well.

The details of these international financing programs are due to be nailed down at the next major UN climate meeting in December in Madrid, where countries will delve into the specifics of how they intend to meet their own targets and how efforts to help developing countries will count toward their own climate change goals.

Preserving and restoring nature can be a powerful way to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects

The world’s forests, wetlands, prairies, and mangroves provide many services to humanity. They’re habitats for iconic and valuable plants and animals. They serve as buffers against severe weather. They’re uniquely beautiful.

These ecosystems also take in and store a vast quantity of carbon. That makes preserving and restoring these systems a powerful tool in limiting climate change. Recent studies have found that restoring forests alone can compensate for a vast amount of human-caused emissions. Conservation efforts can also yield huge economic returns, ranging from creating new tourist attractions to blunting the costly impacts of warming for the most vulnerable.

And in developing countries, home to some of the most valuable and pristine natural systems — like tropical rainforests — the stakes are high. These ecosystems punch above their weight in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, and they face some of the toughest economic pressures for deforestation.

These factors are a big reason why donor countries like the United Kingdom are so interested in ecosystem conservation as a method to combat climate change targeted in these regions. Beyond setting one of the most aggressive decarbonization targets in the world for itself — net-zero emissions by 2050 — the UK announced at the climate action summit that it would double its contributions to international climate financing, pledging at least £11.6 billion ($14.9 billion) over the next five years, with £1.44 billion ($1.85 billion) for the GCF.

“We are putting much, much more emphasis on investing in nature-based solutions to tackling climate change,” said Zac Goldsmith, minister of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom. “And the reason for that is that you get more solutions. You’re not just tackling climate change. You’re talking about biodiversity issues and tackling poverty issues.”

Using nature to deal with climate change takes many forms

The UN’s Green Climate Fund is a key way to fund nature-based climate solutions in developing countries. Through its various programs, the fund deploys grants, loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments. It was initially established in 2010 and raised $10 billion in its first round of funding in 2014. Projects funded through the GCF include renewable energy microgrids in Mali and seawalls in Tuvalu.

“We have a particular focus on the least developed countries and small island developing states and African countries — the most vulnerable countries [to climate change],” said Simon Wilson, communications coordinator for the GCF. “We have projects ranging from Bhutan, which is a country with about over half of its territory is actually protected areas — we have projects that support their efforts in protecting the forests — through to countries like Morocco, where we’re doing things like supporting farmers to develop new crops, regenerative crops for example, which are more climate resilient but at the same time prevent deforestation in other areas.”

Razed peatlands are seen at the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in Trumon, South Aceh due to illegal land-clearing activities in Aceh, Indonesia on March 06, 2018.
Ecosystem restoration requires more than preventing destruction; it requires measurement and verification.
Junaidi Hanafiah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+) is another climate financing mechanism for developing countries, focused specifically on reducing deforestation. Rather than donations, this program functions on a credit system, where one country can offset a quantity of its own emissions by restoring a section of forest in another country. This is an increasingly important tactic for countries that want to make deep cuts in their contributions to climate change but have exhausted their easiest options for curbing emissions.

And it’s not just national governments supporting these programs. Businesses are also buying into nature restoration programs. Last month, the California Air Resources Board adopted the state’s Tropical Forest Standard. This allows California to buy up sections of tropical forests to offset its greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting and proving results from ecosystem restoration is hard

While the potential for using nature to fight climate change is immense, it’s proven difficult in practice to implement. Planting trees, restoring grasslands, and protecting coastlines aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for global warming.

A big issue is verification. Lisa Song at ProPublica has extensively reported on how carbon offsets in the form of forest preservation have failed to deliver the promised results:

In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.

In many of the most remote and pristine parts of the world, it’s difficult to monitor just how much carbon an ecosystem is absorbing. These areas also require ongoing protection and maintenance from people on the ground to thwart illegal logging, poaching, and extraction.

Many of these offset programs also presume that a preserved or restored natural area will stand indefinitely, but as the recent rise in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon shows, that won’t hold up if political winds shift away from conservation. And paying someone not to cut down a forest only works until someone comes by willing to pay more.

Members of an indigenous delegation from Brazil are standing in front of a hotel in Berlin, Germany.
Members of an indigenous delegation from Brazil protest a consumer goods convention in Berlin, Germany, October 2019. Protesters said many of the companies at the convention produce products that contribute to the destruction of the rainforest.
Paul Zinken/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Another concern is the accounting problem of additionality, linking the cause and effect of a potential donation and conservation effort. That means making sure that an acre of rainforest or a stretch of coastal wetlands is preserved as a direct result of a given funding effort. If a credit, grant, or investment goes to secure an ecosystem that wasn’t facing any threat to begin with, it isn’t leading to an additional reduction in emissions. The same is true for purchasing credits for restoration efforts within a country that were already underway.

However, establishing that a program is additional requires evaluating a counterfactual — that a particular nature preserve or restoration effort would not have happened were it not for this purchase — and many initiatives have struggled to demonstrate that this is true for their interventions.

But the biggest hurdle for using natural solutions to fight climate change might be the politics. Having one country induce a change in another is already a fraught endeavor. Add in wealth inequities between countries, pressures for economic development, and national sovereignty concerns, and these funding programs can end up producing mediocre results.

“The Green Climate Fund just has not worked very well,” said Thomas Lovejoy, a biologist and senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. “There has been a lot of pushing and pulling and politics in it.”

One of these debates is over which country gets to claim the emissions reduction from a restored natural system on their balance sheet: the country selling the credit or the country buying it. The concern about double counting emissions reductions remains one of the biggest outstanding issues of the Paris Agreement, and signatories are still trying to come up with an equitable way to account for this.

President of the Marshall Islands Hilda C. Heine speaks during the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Marshall Islands President Hilda C. Heine spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit about how her country is on the front lines of climate change and needs international assistance to cope.
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Some countries are also strongly opposed to the idea of another country buying up a swath of territory and declaring it off-limits for development. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, speaking at the UN General Assembly last month, decried the very idea that other countries could have an interest in protecting the Amazon rainforest.

“It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humankind, and a misconception, as confirmed by scientists, to say that our Amazonian forests are the lungs of the world,” said Bolsonaro. “Using these fallacies, certain countries instead of helping, embarked on the media lies and behaved in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit. They even called into question that which we hold as the most sacred value: our own sovereignty.”

Donor countries have labored to thread this needle — between a global imperative to combat climate change with political concerns in countries that are home to some of the most valuable natural tools to limit warming. It’s a delicate process, and the stakes are immense.

“It’s not for a country like the UK to come pile-in on another country and demand that they do particular things,” said the UK’s Goldsmith. “But then equally, the Amazon is a global asset. There’s no escaping that. If the Amazon were to be destroyed tomorrow, the whole world would feel the reverberations in a very, very, very frightening way.”

But while it’s difficult to get this right, it isn’t impossible. And with the window rapidly closing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the world needs all options on the table, including funding to protect and regenerate natural systems that take in and store carbon. That’s why many countries are still putting money into these programs.

“You can come to these kinds of things and throw up a lot of objections and questions and at least half of them, I’m sure, are justified,” Lovejoy said. “But they’re all resolvable in the end. We all need a better future, and if we can get some revenue flowing into making that possible, let’s go for it.”

But domestic politics could still undermine international efforts to finance climate change responses. Spain is now hosting the December UN climate conference because the Chilean government backed out after widespread unrest. This was only after Brazil declined to host the summit, shortly after a new government was elected in 2018. Amid the disruption, the conference will test just how committed countries are to working together to keep nature whole.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the UK’s pledge total for international climate financing.

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