OPINION: Let's show our children we can do more than talk on climate change

by Santiago Gowland | Rainforest Alliance
Tuesday, 19 October 2021 11:37 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Adolfo Martinez walks at a experimental plantation of robusta coffee in Turrialba, Costa Rica August 16, 2016. Picture taken August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Investing in nature can help shift the climate crisis

Santiago Gowland is CEO of the Rainforest Alliance.

When 10,000 young people from around the world responded to a recent survey about climate, nearly half said climate anxiety negatively affects their daily functioning. As the father of both a teen and a pre-teen, I find this distressing—but not surprising.  

Why wouldn’t they feel anxiety? The planet is now 1.1 degrees Celsius [1.8 F] warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution, last month the UN rang the alarm bell more loudly than ever before, and yet the adults in the room—world leaders and titans of industry—appear more focused on talk than action. For many young people it all adds up to, “blah, blah, blah,” as another teen so famously put it not long ago. 

I share their frustration, especially with the inaction on so-called nature-based solutions. It has been two years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told us that nature-based solutions could help achieve 37 percent of necessary emissions reductions. And though they are a key theme at the upcoming UN climate summit, these solutions have received too little attention and investment. 

It makes no sense. We know that regenerative agriculture is a method that works to rehabilitate nature and helps mitigate climate change. (Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for 24% of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of tropical forest deforestation).

We also know that forests are a cost-effective carbon-capture ‘technology’—but deforestation and forest degradation continue at a horrifying pace. And this is happening despite commitments to deforestation-free supply chains.   

We have a powerful tool at our fingertips to combat this global crisis - nature - but will we maximize its potential? For our children’s sake, we must. 

For that to happen, we need to massively scale up investment in nature-based solutions, such as community forestry.  

Take, for instance, the successful forest communities that the Rainforest Alliance works with in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. They harvest timber sustainably, extracting only one tree per hectare every 40 years and maintaining nurseries of native species to plant; they also collect tree nuts and xate (a palm frond) from the forest floor.

As a result, these communities have maintained a remarkable near-zero deforestation rate for more than 20 years in a region otherwise devastated by deforestation—and they’ve done so while building bustling local economies.  

But investment is needed to establish economies like these and to strengthen market linkages between forest businesses and responsible buyers—particularly in the tropics, since tropical forests absorb more carbon dioxide than any other kind of forest. 

It’s worth noting that this model works best when local and Indigenous communities have land rights. Many countries have handed land rights back to the communities that have long traditions of stewarding their forests, but more governments need to do so, and more investment is needed to support the communities.  

Another crucial nature-based climate solution is regenerative farming, which enhances nature rather than depleting it. Among its many benefits, regenerative farming improves soil health - and healthy soil is the biggest carbon pool on the planet.

Nurturing existing trees and planting new trees side-by-side with crops—a regenerative practice called agroforestry—not only increases carbon storage, it creates a protective canopy that regulates temperature and humidity. Many shade-tree varieties improve soil health, too. 

The advantages of such farming practices aren’t limited to carbon sequestration.

The 1,000-hectare Aquiares Estate Coffee farm in Costa Rica, a pioneer in regenerative farming, has planted nearly 50,000 trees, effectively connecting two wildlife corridors. Now the farm boasts 76 native tree species and 140 bird species—103 of which hadn’t been seen before the farm adopted regenerative practices. Biodiversity has flourished there.  

The recent report issued by the IPCC says that if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we must cut emissions in half by 2030. We are not on track to do that.

Discussions about how to get there largely focus on shifting to green energy, but scaling up nature-based solutions is just as crucial. And that starts with scaling up investment: The UN’s Environment Program says investment in nature-based solutions must triple by 2030.  

As someone who worked for two decades leading sustainability initiatives in the private sector, I feel strongly that companies can - and must - play a principal role in driving this transformation. I also know that tools like regenerative farming and community forestry are effective and scalable, particularly when the voices of local communities are centered.  

Many governments and companies say they are committed. Now what we need is coordinated investment, public-private partnerships, and fast action - and to show our children that we can do more than talk.   

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