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Natural Climate Solutions: “It really is time that governments stopped trying to find more ways to offset their fossil fuel emissions”

From the beginning, REDD proponents described saving rainforests as the “low-hanging fruit”. When he launched Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) in December 2007, Norway’s then-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg told us that, “Through effective measures against deforestation we can achieve large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – quickly and at low cost.”

And the founder of Avoided Deforestation Partners, Jeff Horowitz was convinced that, “we must take advantage of low-hanging fruit solutions such as forest conservation.”

Natural Climate Solutions

After 10 years of utter failure to reduce the rate of deforestation, the same REDD proponents are now touting something called “Natural Climate Solutions”.

Here’s a video from The Nature Conservancy:

In the video, the voice-over says,

For example, natural ecosystems contain a vast amount of carbon. Protection and management strategies can ensure it’s not released into the atmosphere, reducing overall emissions. Our forests, farms and coasts, can also help by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in soils, trees, and grasslands through photosynthesis.

It all sounds so simple and reassuring. No one needs to change anything. The airline industry can continue to expand. The oil industry can continue drilling. We can stop worrying and leave it to the experts. Just a few techno-fixes, and nature will solve climate change for us.

Obviously, this is bullshit. It’s a form of climate denial – pretending that we can address climate breakdown without even talking about keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Natural Climate Solutions are controversial because they don’t work

A recent article by Sophie Yeo on Pacific Standard asks why using nature to tackle climate change is so controversial. The article includes a comment from Tatiana Minayeva of Wetlands International. Minayeva has studied how countries are using peatland restoration to meet their climate targets. She concludes that they are not.

“There are no champions really. It’s really not a low-hanging fruit,” Minayeva says.

The article also includes this comment from Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, a German-based climate science and policy institute:

“It really is time that governments stopped trying to find more ways to offset their fossil fuel emissions through, for example, protecting seagrass and mangroves in coastal areas. They do need protection, but if that work is then used to offset emissions, then ultimately the resulting warming will kill them. We need a clear firewall between these two activities.”

Hare raises the fundamental problem with carbon offsets, including REDD. Carbon offsets do not reduce emissions. At the very best, reduced emissions in one part of the planet are offset against continued emissions somewhere else. And continued emissions mean that climate breakdown gets ever closer.

This is not a controversial point of view. Back in December 2009, Lex de Jonge, then-chair of the CDM Executive Board, wrote that,

“CDM, at its best, is a zero sum game, because its credits are used to offset reduction obligations of Annex 1 countries.”

Nevertheless, the aviation industry is currently planning to use offsets to justify continued expansion – and ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So-called environmental organisations, including The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, support the aviation industry’s plans to fry the planet.

Forest fires increase in a warming climate

There are two serious problems with the aviation industry’s offsetting proposals. First, to stand a chance of avoiding runaway climate breakdown, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. The driving force behind climate change is burning fossil fuels.

Second, we cannot rely on forests to safely store carbon emitted from fossil fuels. Since REDD was included in the Bali Roadmap in 2007, the rate of tropical tree cover loss has increased dramatically, as this graph from World Resources Institute shows:

The reality is that there is no silver bullet for stopping deforestation. It is a complex issue. Drivers of deforestation vary from country to country and in different areas of the same country.

And the US-based organisations promoting natural climate solutions have an embarrassing problem. They cannot stop rising emissions from forests in their own country.

In the past two years, almost 1.2 million hectares in California has gone up in smoke. In 2018, California saw 7,899 wildfires. California’s then-Governor called the fires the new abnormal:

“This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. And this abnormal will continue certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years. Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify. We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life, so we’ve got to pull together.

“We’re dealing with existential conditions that, once they take off, the certain amount of dryness in the vegetation and the soil and the air, then the winds get up 50, 60 miles an hour, this is what happens. We’re in a new abnormal. Things like this will be a part of our future.”

Of course, Brown shares the optimism of the US-based BINGOs that despite the failure to store carbon under their noses in California’s forests, it will be perfectly possible in the tropics. As the increased deforestation in recent years in Brazil reveals (even before Jair Bolsonara became president) this optimism is based on pure fantasy.

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  1. Deforestation and burning of existing forests like in California are closely related to numerous human activities. Modern city or WUI dwellers have no clue how to control fire. Of all global wildland fires, over 90 % are caused by human activities. Weather and climate only 10 %. Compulsory Fire Educating at all levels is required. Educating school children, teachers and local farming women in seven (7) African countries, reduced wildfires (uncontrolled fires) by 70 %. This is fully applicable in US and California. In 2018 I carried out education in fire prevention in Iran as well as training of fire people from Borneo (Kalimantan) at the University of Applied Sciences in HAMK, Finland.

  2. @Mike Jurvélius – Thanks for this comment. Could you provide evidence (preferably peer reviewed, but links to news reports are also fine) for the following claims that you make:

    1. Of all global wildland fires, over 90 % are caused by human activities. Weather and climate only 10 %.

    2. Educating school children, teachers and local farming women in seven (7) African countries, reduced wildfires (uncontrolled fires) by 70 %.

    And I have a question for you – are the fires that are caused by human activities made worse by droughts, extreme high temperatures, and weather systems like El Niño? If not, how do you explain how bad the fires were in Indonesia in 2015, compared to other years? Thanks.