2 August 2022

We still need nature-based solutions

The growth of tech-based solutions should not come at the expense of nature-based solutions, argues Maxwell Mcgrath-Horn

Maxwell McGrath HornAs global consensus is at last coalescing around the need to act on climate change, and climate finance is finally scaling, the climate movement is suffering an attack from within.

Proponents of a new, tech-driven suite of climate solutions are actively undermining the credibility of nature-based solutions in an attempt to syphon away their funding in carbon markets.

Their argument posits a non-existent, either-or dilemma between financing nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, or technological solutions that pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and store it permanently.

Market share gained for this tech to the detriment of developing countries' abilities to invest in conserving and restoring their forests and other natural systems would be a Pyrrhic victory.

Nature is by far the best tool we have today to combat a crisis that cannot wait. However, this isn't a zero-sum game. We can, and must, stop arguing and invest in both approaches.

At issue is funding in carbon markets, which allow governments and companies to 'offset' part of their emissions by purchasing carbon credits. Carbon credits are an asset created by preventing greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere, or by removing and storing them.

Credit sales are a key source of finance for all carbon storage, nature-based or otherwise. But with the value of voluntary carbon markets projected to increase from around $320 million in 2019 to more than $25 billion in 2030, there is little need to fight overfunding. Indeed, a new permanent removal fund, Frontier, just launched with a $1 billion capitalization.

These technologies' current funding handicap is lack of readiness, not nature-based solutions' prominent share of carbon markets.

Their argument against funding nature-based solutions is rooted in real and important challenges that they present. Carbon credits produced by reducing deforestation, planting trees, or improving agricultural practices that limit emissions and store carbon in soils have historically been plagued with issues of double-counting of credits, reducing fewer emissions than claimed, and negatively impacting some communities.

"Nature is by far the best tool we have today to combat a crisis that cannot wait"

Yet significant improvements have been made to address these issues, including development of more rigorous standards, better social and environmental safeguards, and advanced measurement and verification technologies. And more can be, and is being, done to enhance the integrity and quality of nature-based carbon projects.

Investing in the restoration of nature is among the fastest and most cost-effective solutions to climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While these solutions often only provide short-term relief, we desperately need the breathing room they can provide while we innovate and scale permanent removal technologies for future deployment.

Furthermore, nature-based solutions have many co-benefits beyond carbon storage, including helping people adapt to climate change impacts, creating jobs, healing ecosystems, and conserving biodiversity.

Directing funding to developing countries advances climate justice, supporting those countries that contributed least to climate change and yet suffer the heaviest burden in the form of floods, droughts, heatwaves, and extreme storms. Because nature-based solutions are comparatively inexpensive, and because the most carbon-dense forests (the Amazon, Congo, and Southeast Asian rainforests) lie in developing countries, channeling funding into communities protecting and enhancing nature can be rapid, effective, and just.

Tech-driven solutions respond to the impermanence of nature but come with their own serious shortcomings. First, they are not ready to be deployed. Only a handful of technologies are operational, and at nowhere near the scale of nature-based solutions.

Second, they have none of the co-benefits that are part-and-parcel of nature-based solutions.

Finally, because the technologies are expensive and highly concentrated in North America and the Nordic countries, diverting finance away from forests in developing countries and into carbon capture facilities in the developed world threatens elite capture of carbon finance, and is detrimental to climate justice.

The logic for collaboratively promoting both approaches is clear: Nature-based solutions are ready now, comparatively inexpensive, and benefit those most vulnerable to climate change who contributed least to creating it. They also promote adaptation, ecosystem health, and biodiversity.

By injecting carbon underground, turning it into rock, or sinking it into the deep ocean, permanent removal technologies will be a critical tool for the future of the climate fight.

To have a chance at keeping global warming below the Paris Agreement's goal of 1.5°C we need to channel much more funding into nature-based solutions today, while investing to scale the promising technologies that, implemented in tandem with nature, could provide a long-term solution.

Maxwell Mcgrath-Horn is senior climate finance advisor at international development firm Chemonics.