Five business actions for nature that are essential to tackling the climate crisisMaría Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition
A version of this article first appeared on Harvard Business Review.
Critics argue that net-zero by 2050 commitments distract attention from the urgent need to reduce emissions today. Some believe that net-zero commitments can overemphasize carbon removal technologies, creating a potential ‘get out of jail free card’ for heavy emitting sectors. Caught in the middle of this debate is the role of nature in net-zero.
This makes it challenging for companies to identify how best to invest in nature in a way that supports, rather than undermines their climate targets.
The fact is, that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the science is clear – this is not an either / or situation. By the end of this decade, we must halve emissions and turn nature from a carbon source into a carbon sink. We need to cut emissions from food and land-use- which generate up to 37% of global emissions – and replace them with regenerative activities like forest restoration, peatland rewetting and regenerative agriculture. Nature can bring 30% or more of this reduction.
Commodity driven deforestation and methane production from livestock are major culprits – generating high emissions in many companies’ supply chains. Often these and other emissions in supply chains – ‘Scope 3’ emissions – are responsible for over 90% of a company’s total emissions and 5-10 times a company’s direct operational emissions.
But even efforts to tackle these emissions alone are unlikely to be enough. Companies will also need to invest in protecting and restoring nature outside of their own supply chains if we want any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
The Science Based Targets initiative will release a new guide later this year. It will have to balance the need for companies to reduce internal emissions in line with a 1.5º trajectory while also incentivizing companies to invest in actions outside of their supply chain to compensate for those emissions that they cannot eliminate.
For now, where should companies focus their efforts? Here are five impactful ways, companies can incorporate nature into their climate plans.
- Reduce deforestation
Eliminating deforestation from supply chains and helping suppliers take action is an immediate and impactful action companies can take to reduce their contribution to nature-driven climate change. If the private sector works with governments to reach net zero deforestation by 2030, we could avoid 3.6 Gt of emissions annually according to conservative estimates, more than is emitted from fossil fuels every year by the EU.
Many emissions occur outside commercial value chains through activities like subsistence agriculture and natural disasters like forest fires. The recently launched $1bn Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) coalition gives companies a mechanism to go beyond their own supply chains and provide a financial incentive for governments to manage land more sustainably. This enables companies to display a new kind of corporate climate leadership, bolstering climate action by supplementing rigorous internal emission reduction plans.
Companies can also join platforms like the Tropical Forest Alliance and the Consumer Goods Forum forest positive coalition to drive greater impact by taking collective action across entire landscapes.
- Increase carbon removals by restoring land
We must both rapidly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere – at scale. Companies can do this by helping bring degraded forests back to health by planting trees alongside crops in agricultural fields or by restoring peatlands. These activities are attractive because of the co-benefits they bring, like employment opportunities for local communities, biodiversity conservation from restoring wildlife corridors, or improving water and soil quality within watersheds as ecosystems are brought back to health. This could remove 3.1 Gt of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Companies can find guidance on how to invest in a range of approaches, including carbon removal, through initiatives like the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance.
- Support the shift to more plant-intensive diets
Agriculture – and particularly the meat industry – is increasingly recognized as one of the hardest sectors to cut emissions from. Consumers have a big role to play by shifting towards more plant-based diets. Companies can support this by developing their product ranges.
A recent report from the EAT Lancet Commission suggests that doubling our consumption of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes while halving consumption of red meat could reduce the emissions of our current food systems trajectory by 4.8 Gt annually by 2050.
- Invest in more sustainable agricultural practices
We also need to change the way we grow food by using more regenerative practices, less fertilizer and reducing emissions from livestock. This can be achieved by increasing the use of cover crops, reducing our reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers, changing irrigation practices in rice production, and improving livestock feed. Collectively these actions could reduce emissions by 1 Gt annually by 2030.
These actions could shave a quarter off direct agricultural emissions, but require investment of $300-$350 billion annually by 2030. Companies need to begin investing now, for example in more R&D to identify undiscovered pathways to decarbonizing agriculture and creating new markets.
- Advocate for nature-friendly policy
With the upcoming UN biodiversity summit in October ahead of COP26, it is critical that business supports policy to drive greater action for both nature and climate. Companies can show their support for nature policy through Business for Nature and give governments the confidence to introduce incentives and regulation to enable a quick transition to new approaches for nature.
There is a clear imperative for companies to invest in nature now, both for helping achieve climate goals and creating a nature positive future. This will also improve the resilience and stability of supply chains and sources of raw materials, while improving rural livelihoods.
It’s time for companies to get ahead of the curve and invest in nature now.