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Is the new Natural Climate Solutions campaign a distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground?

Earlier this week, an international group of more than 20 campaigners wrote a letter to The Guardian in support of natural climate solutions. “The world faces two existential crises, developing with terrifying speed: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown,” they write. “Neither is being addressed with the urgency needed to prevent our life-support systems from spiralling into collapse.”

We are championing a thrilling but neglected approach to averting climate chaos while defending the living world: natural climate solutions. Defending the living world and defending the climate are, in many cases, one and the same.

Guardian journalist George Monbiot is behind the letter, and signatories include Greta Thunberg, the school strikes climate activist, climate scientist Michael Mann, writers Naomi Klein, Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, Greenpeace Southeast Asia director Yeb Saño, Greenpeace UK director John Sauven, Friends of the Earth UK director Craig Bennett, and musician Brian Eno.

The initiative has set up a website which explains that “Our aim is to prevent climate breakdown by restoring our life support systems.” The mission is “To catalyse global enthusiasm for drawing down carbon by restoring ecosystems: the single most undervalued and underfunded tool for climate mitigation.”

And it has created a video, with graphics by Al Boardman:

Obviously, support for protecting forests, restoring ecosystems, restoring our life support systems, and for preventing climate breakdown is to be welcomed. But there are several aspects of this new initiative that concern me.

This post is written in the spirit of encouraging debate about the issues surrounding natural climate solutions.

I understand that leaving fossil fuels in the ground and natural climate solutions are “both / and” rather than “either / or” solutions to climate change. Nevertheless, a key concern is that using nature to address climate change could undermine the increasingly desperate need to stop burning fossil fuels.

Leave the oil in the soil

Monbiot has written eloquently about the urgency of addressing climate change for many years.

In 2007, Monbiot announced that he had “stumbled across the single technology which will save us from runaway climate change”. The technology? Leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Monbiot wasn’t the first to propose this. Oilwatch came up with the idea of “leaving the oil in the soil” in 1996. The following year, Oilwatch presented its oil moratorium in the parallel meetings that took place during the UN climate negations in Kyoto.

REDD-Monitor has repeated this argument dozens of times. To address climate change, we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Negative emissions technology

In a report on the Natural Climate Solutions website, Monbiot explains that leaving fossil fuels in the ground is no longer enough to prevent climate breakdown:

There is now a broad consensus among climate scientists that the reduction of current greenhouse gas emissions will be insufficient to avert 1.5°C or more of global heating. This is because mitigation efforts have probably been left too late to avoid this critical threshold.

Natural Climate Solutions are a form of negative emissions technology – sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Some of these technologies are dangerous and counter-productive in the fight against climate breakdown:

  • Monbiot makes clear that the initiative is not promoting Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) because of the vast area of land that would be required (three times the total area of India, in one scenario).
  • Neither is Monbiot promoting direct air capture, which sucks carbon out of the air. The problems are the high cost, and the emissions associated with the process, which would be very large if the technology were deployed at the scale needed to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Monoculture tree plantations are not supported by the Natural Carbon Solutions initiative, because they have “a lower capacity for carbon storage than natural forest, tend to harbour a much lower diversity of wildlife, and often cause major social and ecological harms”.

Monbiot’s paper also makes clear that Natural Climate Solutions are not an excuse for continued pollution from burning fossil fuels:

NCS should not be seen as a substitute for the rapid and comprehensive decarbonisation of industry and agriculture. We need both to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to extract greenhouse gases from the air.

But there is the serious danger that Natural Climate Solutions are being promoted by others as a dangerous distraction from the need to stop burning fossil fuels. Oil and gas corporations, for example.

Oil and gas corporations love Natural Climate Solutions

Last year, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, announced that,

“You can get to 1.5C, but not by just by pulling the same levers a little bit harder, because they are being pulled roughly as fast and as hard as we are currently imagining. What we think can be done is massive reforestation. Think of another Brazil in terms of rainforest: you can get to 1.5C.”

I don’t think Van Beurden is suggesting that Shell will plant the area of rainforest in Brazil with trees. Shell’s record with industrial forestry projects in the 1980s in Thailand is not pretty.

But he is talking about natural climate solutions – while his company continues to profit from drilling oil.

A few weeks ago, Eni’s chief executive, Claudio Descalzi, proposed “large forestry projects” to offset emissions from Eni’s oil and gas operations. The Financial Times reported that Eni was planning to “plant a forest” covering 8.1 million hectares in several countries in Africa.

That amounts to a massive land grab. And the reality is that Eni’s massive tree planting scheme will result in industrial tree plantations, not a forest.

Again, Eni may not be serious about planting this vast area with trees. But Descalzi is talking about natural climate solutions – while his company continues to profit from drilling oil.

And here’s a video produced by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development which has its own website on Natural Climate Solutions. The video features representatives of Novartis, WWF, Shell, The Nature Conservancy, WBCSD, International Paper, Olam, all speaking in favour of natural climate solutions:

It’s odd, to say the least, to hear a spokesperson for Shell promoting natural climate solutions, and to hear George Monbiot apparently promoting the same thing.

Is REDD a Natural Climate Solution?

Monbiot specifically refers to REDD in his report:

Any deployment of NCS must avoid the problems that have beset some REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) projects. In common with all other interventions, NCS projects must work with the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people and other local communities. The benefits must flow to these communities. NCS should be deployed in such a way that it strengthens rather than undermines their landrights, economic security and wellbeing. Good governance of these projects is inseparable from the principles of equity and justice.

He should have been way more critical.

A paper published last year in Conservation and Society, for example, looked at “Actually existing REDD”.

The authors concluded that:

Early evidence from REDD+ projects suggests major challenges, including: ongoing weak enforcement of domestic laws on forests and land, leading to limited effectiveness; contestation or conflict over property rights and community benefits; as well as securitisation and violence, often perpetrated by government agencies.

And REDD is a carbon trading scheme, which, even in the best case scenario, will result in zero emissions reductions. Emissions reductions in the forests are used to offset continued emissions from burning fossil fuels elsewhere.

The Natural Carbon Solutions initiative opposes carbon offsets. Later in his paper Monbiot writes,

The age of offsets is over. Natural Climate Solutions will not help to prevent climate breakdown if they are used as an excuse to delay mitigation, and to avoid the hard choices it necessitates.

The age of offsets is over? If only that were true. The reality is that the aviation industry is currently planning a massive carbon offset scheme. California is considering offsetting its climate pollution with REDD carbon credits.

Natural Climate Solutions in countries’ plans under the Paris Agreement

Monbiot anticipates “three crucial opportunities over the next two years for ensuring that Natural Climate Solutions receive the global attention they deserve”. These are: the Climate Summit in New York, September 2019; COP 15 of the Convention on Biodiversity in Beijing, Autumn 2020; and COP 26 of the UNFCCC in November 2020, at which countries are supposed to put forward their new Nationally Determined Contributions.

Two-thirds of the the countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement already have included Natural Climate Solutions in their Nationally Determined Contributions.

More than 100 countries include natural solutions in their adaptation plans, and 27 countries include them in their mitigation plans. They are doing so in order to allow continued pollution from fossil fuels – either in their own country or elsewhere.

Allies? Really?

On its website, Natural Climate Solution has a list of “our allies”. The website asks readers to, “Please follow these links and support their efforts.”

I’m relieved to see that neither WBCSD nor Shell is on the list.

But the list includes some of the main promoters of REDD as a carbon trading mechanism: The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and Nature4Climate, which was set up by The Nature Conservancy to promote Natural Climate Solutions.

The Nature Conservancy promotes carbon offsets. Emily Landis, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s coastal wetlands strategy, recently told Pacific Standard that, “We need to do something, and if carbon offsets is a way to get enhanced finance in the short term, I think, yes, we have to be careful of greenwashing but we don’t have much time.”

And WWF is on the list, despite the recent investigation by Buzzfeed News that exposed serious allegations of violent abuse by eco-guards funded by WWF.
 


PHOTO Credit: Al Boardman.
 

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