In the new film Everything Everywhere All at Once, a Chinese American small business owner operates in the multiverse to save the world from ultimate destruction, all while dealing with a pesky IRS audit. It’s a catchy and descriptive title that reminds me of where we find ourselves today with respect to climate change.
In an ideal world, we would have recognized the environmental impact of industrialization a century ago, implemented regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and created long-term solutions to prevent catastrophic disaster. We did not. Nor did we heed the telling signs that were apparent three decades ago, insistent two decades ago, and screaming at us for the last 10 years. Instead, we find ourselves with barely a decade to make profound changes to avert drastic environmental and social consequences. Our only path to success is everything, everywhere, all at once.
Keeping global temperature rise to “only” 1.5 degrees Celsius will require a fast transition from a petroleum economy to a bioeconomy in all the major sectors, including energy, transportation, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. This transformation will take time and resources. One set of solutions is known as Natural Climate Solutions (NCS). This includes practices like reducing deforestation, reforesting degraded landscapes, managing forests to store more carbon, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, protecting coral reefs and mangroves, transitioning to no-till agriculture, limiting the impact of livestock, and more. We must continue to invest in NCS at scale to have any hope of meeting our target, as they can provide immediate, affordable, and proven results.
Reducing emissions is necessary but not sufficient: multiple studies, including IPCC reports note that expanding existing carbon sinks by preserving established forests and allowing them to expand the amount of CO2 they absorb, is critical to meeting Paris Climate Agreement goals. Griscom et al (2017) conclude that NCS can provide over a third of the cost-effective mitigation needed by 2030 to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. The most significant NCS strategies identified are reducing deforestation, reforesting, and improving the carbon storage of managed forests.
With few regulatory systems in place, voluntary carbon markets have emerged as a mechanism to finance NCS projects that reduce emissions or increase sequestration from existing natural systems. This project approach can be very successful in avoiding emissions or sequestering carbon and can benefit specific areas or communities. However, this approach also raises the issue of “double-counting” when the projects are not adequately “nested” and accounted for within country emission reduction targets. This double-counting risk, along with some poorly designed and implemented projects, have led to abundant criticism. It is important to note that carbon projects are a temporary approach as we move towards a cohesive, enforceable global accounting framework. With seven years to meet our 2030 targets and the slow pace of international frameworks, these projects are critical to slowing and reversing the damage climate change is wreaking on our planet. We have no choice but to learn as we go, rigorously apply what we learn, and to continue to expand NCS projects at scale.
With that sentiment in mind, it’s important to remember that there is an international coalition of practitioners with more than two decades of experience developing and implementing the systems and markets that measure and verify carbon, and documenting the ancillary benefits of Natural Climate Solutions, like clean water, species habitat, soil health and ecosystem resilience. Just because most of the public has just begun to pay attention to the topic does not mean that the topic is new. For a good review of the decades-long hard work to build permanence, additionality and other quality criteria in carbon projects, read the excellent articles of Steve Zwick found here.
Are the methodologies and systems perfect? Absolutely not. Have they improved consistently and adaptively in response to learning and experience? Emphatically yes, and they can and should continue to benefit from constructive criticism. Is it helpful to cherry pick a few bad projects to show that NCS carbon projects are perverse? Hardly. I’m looking at you, John Oliver.
The most maligned projects are those that produce “avoided emissions” instead of “carbon removals.” Avoided emissions projects, like REDD+, generally involve stopping or reducing deforestation. Given the criticism, some corporations looking to participate in the voluntary market are steering clear of NCS projects that produce avoided emissions. This isn’t a total surprise, as some pretty dodgy projects that produced avoided emissions have gained notoriety. However, limiting investment in projects that reduce deforestation or forest degradation is perverse; it is many times less expensive and more immediately beneficial to the climate to keep forests standing than to reforest them later, with significant and immediate co-benefits for biodiversity, water, rural communities, and indigenous people. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reforest degraded landscapes — we absolutely should — but it is much more expensive and takes much more time to build carbon stores than to leave a forest standing to begin with. Everything, everywhere, all at once — we can’t limit temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius if we allow deforestation to continue in our tropical, temperate and boreal forests.
There is a vocal and persuasive contingent that advocate for regulatory solutions and for punishing the polluters. They believe that capitalism is the cause of the climate crisis, and as a result, that market mechanisms have no place in climate solutions. Further, they believe it is morally wrong that companies can simply pay for their sins by purchasing offsets while they continue to emit at the same level. Instead, emitters should halt their harmful economic activities regardless of the economic consequences on their company or its stakeholders.
Given the condition of the planet, this sentiment is understandable. But it hardly seems helpful to flagellate the “sinners” as the boat sinks with all of us on it: humans (sinners among them) alongside animals, plants and fungi. We need to decide whether we want retribution or whether we want effective, immediate action in the time that remains. To solve our problems we need everyone, and everything, everywhere, all at once.
Most of the people working on climate change and Natural Climate Solutions are attempting to right the ship. They may be working with imperfect information, or scant resources, or ineffective solutions, or even a touch of the ego and greed that colors many human endeavors. But we should start from the premise that a participant in the carbon market — whether developer, buyer, verifier, broker, landowner, indigenous community — is likely engaged because they want to limit climate change. It would be most helpful to approach imperfect projects, like those that create avoided emissions, with the resolve to improve them, rather than the brief but fleeting pleasure of a public flogging. Harassing corporations and entities that make Net Zero pledges to the point where they limit their investment in NCS is certainly not helpful to the cause.
We must focus on uniting disparate efforts and pledges into what is required for effectiveness: reduction of emissions at the global level. Encouraging voluntary emission targets and projects, and focusing on enhancing their quality and scale, will sequester many more tons than disparaging those efforts. Corporates are engaged in climate change — finally and essentially. As inflation and declining corporate profits absorb more energy in the boardroom, climate change efforts — especially if they bring bad publicity — will be on the chopping block. We need to nurture corporate engagement in climate change rather than condemn those efforts for being imperfect. Engaging respectfully and collaboratively with entities who wish to invest in climate change mitigation will encourage others to do the same, and it does not limit our ability to improve standards and transparency at the same time.
Criticism has its place, but it is cheap and easy. Rebuilding our energy and natural systems is the tough part. It’s time for the hard work — to put down our swords and pick up our shovels.
Everything, everywhere, all at once.
Bettina von Hagen is the co-founder and CEO of EFM Investments & Advisory, a forestland investment management company focused on forests and Natural Climate Solutions. EFM’s award-winning investment funds enable the transition of landscapes to climate-smart forestry and to more equitable, permanent forms of land ownership. EFM stewards ~130,000 acres under climate-smart management in the western United States and has ~$215M in private capital under management and advisement. Learn more at www.efmi.com.