We now have a welcome definition of net zero – here’s what that might mean for natureMaría Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition
Nature-based solutions (NbS) are not a substitute for industrial greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Period. If countries or companies use them as such, we have no hope of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. It’s important to stress this point, because a common criticism of NbS is that we are giving polluters a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
There is no get out of jail free card. For companies, the net-zero standard issued by the Science Based Targets Initiative makes this clear.
The standard marks a significant milestone in the effort to mobilize corporate climate action. Until now there has been no clear guidance on what net-zero means. The standard seeks to create a common understanding of net-zero in a corporate context, and guides companies in setting net-zero targets. It makes clear that most companies will need to cut at least 90-95% of their internal emissions by 2050 to achieve net-zero, in addition to setting near-term targets. This means they must prioritize cutting emissions from their internal operations and supply chains – including those from forests, land-use and agriculture (FLAG).
And there is no get out of jail free card when it comes to nature either. Simply put, we cannot achieve the Paris Agreement’s global climate goals to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C without harnessing the power of NbS for both climate mitigation and resilience.
NbS will play a critical role in achieving our climate goals because many of them both cut emissions from land-use and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Deforestation and land-use emissions currently account for about one quarter of global emissions. If scaled up now, NbS could provide roughly a third of the emissions reductions needed to reach our global climate goals by 2030.
The Energy Transitions Commission estimated that even with ambitious emissions reduction pathways to net-zero, 200 gigatons of emissions will still have accumulated in the atmosphere by 2050. This means companies and countries will have to go beyond cutting their own emissions to align with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C trajectory.
Unfortunately, NbS are sometimes positioned as an “either/or” proposition, suggesting that companies can either invest in NbS or invest in decarbonizing their internal operations and supply chains. And critical voices are trying to amplify limitations and risks associated with NbS to argue that it should be decarbonization instead of investment in NbS. Climate change is a stock problem, and the current projections from the IPCCC show that if action is not increased to the scale needed we will overshoot the 1.5°C mark. Therefore NbS must always be “as well as”, never “instead of”, deep emissions cuts.
The truth is that it is now too late to make these trade-offs and climate science is demanding corporations take a “both/and” approach, investing both in internal reductions and in NbS inside and outside of their supply chains.
Companies need to both work towards science-based targets aligned with halving global emissions by 2030 and invest in protecting, restoring and sustainably managing lands and oceans. Investment in high-integrity NbS, including investment through carbon markets, is an essential component of corporate leadership on climate action in addition to emission reductions.
What about the “risks and limitations”? It is important to remember that any effort to protect and restore nature is complicated; perhaps more complicated than many other climate solutions. As Mark Tercek neatly summarized, “Natural systems are dynamic, managing them is tricky, and getting outcomes right for both people and nature is never easy.” While demanding quality, we must also acknowledge that NbS are a story of continuous improvement.
It is shortsighted to point to the past decade of starts and stops in the deployment of NbS as proof of their limitations. Instead, it is a decade’s worth of learning and improvement that has brought us to this moment. Science, technology, best practice, and new approaches are converging in such a way that we can be more confident and optimistic than ever before that NbS can be deployed at scale to deliver benefits for climate, biodiversity and local communities and Indigenous Peoples, all at the same time.
There is already a wealth of case studies that are showing the way and we are expecting a raft of announcements at the upcoming COP that will further cement the path forward for NbS. Are there risks? Yes. Will the deployment of NbS require diligent scrutiny and a high bar for accountability? Of course. But the risks of inaction are greater. We don’t have the luxury or “either/or” thinking. There are no get of jail free cards. In the case of companies, this means that we need both emission reductions, in line with the SBTi’s net-zero standard, and significantly investment in nature-based solutions.