We launch a new campaign to allow ecosystems to recover on a massive scale, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd April
I don’t expect much joy in writing about climate breakdown. On one
side, there is grief and fear; on the other side, machines. I became an
environmentalist because I love the living world, but I spend much of my life
thinking about electricity, industrial processes and civil engineering.
Technological change is essential, but to a natural historian it often feels
cold and distancing. Today, however, I can write about something that thrills
me: the most exciting field of research I have covered in years.
Most climate scientists agree that it is now too late to prevent
1.5°C or more of global heating only by cutting our production of greenhouse
gases. Even if we reduced our emissions to zero tomorrow, we would probably
overshoot this crucial temperature limit. To prevent a full-spectrum
catastrophe, we need not only decarbonise our economy in the shortest possible
time, but also to draw down
carbon dioxide that has already been released.
But how? The best-known proposal is called bio-energy
with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This means growing wood or
straw in plantations, burning it in power stations to produce electricity,
capturing the carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases, and burying it in
geological formations. If deployed at scale, it is likely to trigger either an
ecological or a humanitarian disaster.
One BECCS proposal, favoured by certain governments, would cover
an area three
times the size of India with plantations. This involves either converting
agricultural land, in which case BECCS would cause mass starvation, or
converting wild land, in which case almost-lifeless plantations would replace
50% of the world’s remaining natural forests. Even so, it might not be
effective, as any carbon savings will be counteracted by the use of nitrogen
fertiliser and the release of
greenhouse gases from the soil as it’s churned up for planting.
BECCS can lead only to catastrophe, and should be immediately abandoned.
Another option is direct air
capture: extracting carbon dioxide with machines. Aside from the expense,
which is likely to be massive, the amount of steel and concrete required to
build them could help to push the world beyond certain climate tipping points
before the positive effects are felt.
None of this is necessary, because there’s a much better and
cheaper way of doing it. Natural
climate solutions draw carbon from the air through the
restoration of living systems. They could help to solve two existential
problems at once: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Their likely
contribution is enormous – bigger than almost anyone guessed a few years ago –
and it is still scarcely explored.
The greatest potential identified so far – as so
much land can be used this way – is in protecting and restoring natural forests
and allowing native trees to repopulate deforested land. The greatest drawdown
potential per hectare (though the total area is smaller) is the restoration of
coastal habitats such as mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass beds. They stash
carbon 40 times
faster than tropical forests can. Peaty soils are also vital carbon stores. They’re
currently being oxidised by deforestation, drainage, drying, burning, farming
and mining for gardening and fuel. Restoring
peat, by blocking drainage channels and allowing natural vegetation to
recover, can suck back much of what has been lost.
These are the best-studied natural climate solutions. Others have
scarcely been explored. For example, we currently have little idea of what the
impact of industrial fishing might be on the seabed’s vast carbon store. By
disturbing the sediments and lifting the carbon they contain into the
water column, trawlers and dredgers are likely to expose it to oxygen, turning
it into carbon dioxide. One study suggests that repeated trawling in the
north-western Mediterranean has caused a reduction
in carbon storage in the top 10
centimetres of sediments of up to 52%. Given the vast area trawled every year (most of the seabed on the world’s continental shelves), the
climate impact could be enormous. Closing large parts of the seas to trawling
could turn out to be a crucial climate strategy.
Scientists have only recently begun to explore how the recovery of
certain animal populations could radically
change the carbon balance. For example, forest elephants and rhinos in
Africa and Asia and tapirs in Brazil are natural
foresters, maintaining and extending their habitats as they swallow the
seeds of trees and spread them, sometimes across many miles, in their dung.
White rhinos can play a major role in preventing
runaway wildfires in African savannahs. If wolves were allowed
to reach their natural populations in North America, one paper
suggests, their suppression of herbivore populations would store as much
carbon every year as between 30 and 70 million cars produce. Healthy
populations of predatory crabs and fish protect the carbon in salt marshes, as they
prevent herbivorous crabs and snails from wiping out the plants that hold the
What I love about natural climate solutions is that we should be
doing all these things anyway. Instead of making painful choices and deploying
miserable means to a desirable end, we can defend ourselves from disaster by
enhancing our world of wonders. However, nothing should be done without the
involvement and consent of
indigenous people and other local communities. Nor should damaging projects,
such as monocultural plantations, be passed off as natural climate solutions.
As a paper
published this week in Nature shows, several governments are attempting
Today, a small group of us launch a
campaign for natural climate solutions to receive the commitment and funding
they deserve. At the moment, though their potential is huge, they have been
marginalised in favour of projects that might be worse than useless, but that
are profitable for corporations. Governments discuss the climate crisis and the
ecological crisis in separate meetings, when both disasters could be addressed
together. We have created a dedicated website, an
animation, and a letter signed by prominent activists, scientists and artists.
We don’t want natural climate
solutions to be used as a substitute for the rapid and comprehensive
decarbonisation of our economies. The science tells us that both are needed:
the age of
carbon offsets is over. But what this thrilling field of study shows is that
protecting and rewilding the world’s living systems is not just an
aesthetically pleasing thing to do. It is an essential survival strategy.