Regenerating natural systems will draw carbon out of the atmosphere and help tackle climate change. We must recarbonise Earth now, says Jonathon Porritt
COMMUNITY by affected community, the true nature of the climate emergency bears down on more and more people every year. Unprecedented wildfires and previously unthinkable floods, in what some glibly refer to as the new normal, prefigures a world of unpredictable, increasingly traumatic abnormality.
As yet, however, neither extreme weather nor stronger warnings in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports has triggered a proper emergency response from politicians. As we head towards COP26, the big climate conference in Glasgow, UK, in November, incremental decarbonisation best sums up the name of their particular game: gradually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, investing a little bit more every year in low-carbon innovation and new technology.
As with the pandemic, scientists are now exhorting politicians to level with their voters, to tell them how it really is – to explain why halving emissions of greenhouse gases over the next decade is an out-and-out imperative (as the science now tells us) if we are to avoid the horror story of runaway climate change.
In essence, this means preventing those gases getting into the atmosphere in the first place by stopping the burning of all fossil fuels as fast as possible – not just in generating electricity, but in transport, heating buildings and manufacturing. We need to electrify pretty much everything and ensure the extra electricity we will need to power all the heat pumps and battery cars that ensue is 100 per cent renewable.
However, this is only half the story. We have put so many billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air over the past 30 years (much of which will hang around adding to the warming for many decades to come) that we are going to have to remove billions of tonnes of it to avoid that cumulative, long-term warming.
This idea of carbon removal is still highly controversial. It seems completely illogical to be contemplating billions of dollars of investment to remove billions of tonnes of CO₂ – even as we continue to pump huge amounts of this gas into the atmosphere. But we don’t have any choice: we now know that a stable climate (and therefore the future of humankind) depends both on accelerated decarbonisation and on getting very good indeed at accelerating carbon removal from the atmosphere.
Happily, there is a big upside in the shape of recarbonising the natural world – letting it draw down excess carbon, for example by promoting tree growth. We need as much as possible of that removed CO₂ to be taken up by regenerating the life support systems on which our economy still entirely depends – including soils, forests, wetlands, peat bogs, mangroves, seagrasses and so on.
The past 70 years of industrial development and intensive agriculture have badly degraded natural systems. There is now a belated, but welcome, recognition that we can’t go on producing the food we need by continuing to wage war on nature, and a growing interest in recarbonisation through regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, organic farming and even rewilding.
In essence, recarbonisation opens up an extraordinary prospect of rebuilding soil fertility, restoring forests and woodlands, transforming the marine environment and protecting precious habitats and biodiversity. This all has to happen anyway: it just happens to be an equally powerful way of addressing the climate emergency.
It has taken politicians the best part of 30 years (since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992) to get going on decarbonisation. They now need to get up to speed on this approach in just a few years, and COP26 has to be the place to make that happen.