It was historic. The 2015 Paris climate agreement saw every member country of the UN pledge to cut its carbon emissions to zero by the second half of this century and keep global warming at well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
There’s just one problem. To reach this goal the world would need to shut down all of its coal-fired power stations by 2025 and ditch the combustion engine entirely by 2030. To reach its own targets, the UK will need to decarbonise the vast majority of its electricity supply within a mere 15 years. Eliminating fossil fuels this way is going to be extremely challenging. An extra lever is needed to reach the Paris climate targets. But from where?
The answer, many people are now claiming, is to use nature itself as a climate technology. Artificial carbon-capture technologies are still in the lab, and will be expensive and difficult to scale up quickly enough. But, say experts, we already possess a ready-made, affordable system of carbon sequestration with billions of years of R&D behind it – soil, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands. Better managed, restored and protected, these ecosystems could provide more than a third of the carbon reductions needed by 2030 to keep to the 2°C limit.
In February 2016 Intelligence Squared, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, brought together some of the leaders in this field to examine how nature itself can be harnessed to cut our carbon emissions.
Take forests. Conventional wisdom says that we shouldn’t be cutting down trees. On the contrary, say some experts, with the right safeguards in place harvesting trees could be at the core of a new low-carbon bio-economy. Timber buildings, for example, can act as long-lasting carbon stores, at the same time as reducing the need for concrete and steel, which produce more than 5% of atmospheric carbon emissions. That’s the case that was made by Anthony Thistleton, the award-winning architect behind the world’s largest timber building, currently under construction in London.
It’s not only wood. Other solutions – such as using more carbon-efficient methods of agriculture, or restoring mangroves and wetlands – present opportunities for carbon storage at scale. Unleashing nature’s own ‘carbon-capture’ technology could be as significant as stopping burning oil.
But how feasible are these solutions on a global scale? Some argue that such measures are not practical, and that they’ll disrupt the livelihoods of farmers, especially in emerging economies, where agriculture and forestry are still a major source of economic growth. Debating the business and policy challenges of these solutions were Kerry McCarthy MP, former Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, and renowned environmentalist Tony Juniper.
Is nature the great, abundant technology that we have failed to tap? Or would it limit economic progress for those dependent on agriculture and forestry? How to reconcile these risks with the opportunity for the climate?