The world is still thinking too small in the fight against climate change. Here’s how to think bigger
At the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, it's imperative that international leaders go beyond discussions of future emission reductions. It's time to emphasize the importance of climate restoration as part of the path to net-zero that works for allcountries across the globe.
Reducing our emissions remains critically important, but deploying clean energy and updating infrastructure will not in itself solve all the issues we see with climate change. In fact, current mitigation and adaptation activities, although essential, do not typically consider the legacy carbon currently in the atmosphere. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimate that greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere are at the highest levels in 800,000 years.
We now know that the climate has changed due to human impact and will continue to do so with the emissions already in our atmosphere. In light of this, we must continue to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release into our atmosphere while simultaneously addressing the trillion tons of CO2 that we have already emitted. Climate restoration, the movement to remove the excess CO2 from the atmosphere to restore a climate that supports the long-term survival of humanity and our natural world, can fill this gap with a diverse slate of carbon removal strategies.
Climate restoration solutions come in two major categories: natural climate solutions and technological solutions. COP26 attendees will remember that the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends both in its climate studies. For a robust and inclusive climate change response both domestically in the United States and globally, we must utilize every tool in our toolbox.
Natural climate solutions are perhaps an underrated part of the climate fight, but the National Academy of the Sciences estimates that nature-based solutions could account for 37% of emissions reductions needed to meet 2030 goals. When we say "natural climate solutions," we mean, for example, planting more trees to sequester carbon dioxide, restoring ecosystems such as grasslands and coastlines to improve their sequestration potential, and promoting sustainable agriculture practices that result in captured carbon.
Nature-mimicking technologies will also play an important role in climate restoration efforts. These solutions are not as immediately scalable or affordable as natural climate solutions; technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) and carbon-sequestering concrete may require more research, development, and testing, but their eventual deployment is necessary for a clean, sustainable future. In fact, promising technologies are already on the market with increased investment on the way. It's simply not enough to promote clean energy without supporting these technologies in tandem if we want to restore the climate.
DAC technology has the potential to sequester almost one and a half billion tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2050. To give some perspective, that would be the equivalent of removing 300 million cars from the road for a year. These numbers, of course, are contingent on our deployment of DAC within the next few years.
Ahead of COP26, it's important to remember that climate action will not look the same in every country. Wealthy nations have contributed more to our current climate challenge and also have more means to contribute to solving it, so it only fits that we should be using all available tools to lower the cost and burden of restoring the climate. While the United States is able to actively pursue both nature-based and technological solutions right now, some Global South countries are continuing to focus their efforts on restoring ecosystems, planting trees, and making their agricultural industries more sustainable. For developing nations, whose citizens need affordable energy, it's unreasonable to expect the same levels of technological development and deployment as the United States and western Europe.
For example, Madagascar has put significant effort into its "blue economy," including fishery restoration and coastal blue carbon ecosystems, such as mangrove forests. These solutions are inexpensive to implement, help to repair damage inflicted on ecosystems by climate change, and yield returns to their low-income citizens, especially the nation's fishers. Madagascar also has a relatively small carbon footprint, so the proportionally modest carbon uptake of these solutions is appropriate. The U.S. has a much bigger focus on infrastructure, so we are pursuing options like carbon-negative concrete that require significant up-front investments for research and development. The carbon uptake from this type of technological solution has the potential to be greater than coastal blue carbon, which is appropriate given the U.S.'s high rate of emissions.
We often lose sight of the reality that not one policy or strategy will solve climate change. This is why it's important to pursue both natural climate solutions and breakthrough technologies at the same time. Different nations – or even parts of a nation, in the case of the United States – will have differing strategies to address both the effects and sources of climate change. At COP26, it's critical that we acknowledge this fact and plan for a dynamic, diverse response to the environmental challenges our world faces.
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