The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C has sounded the alarm with greater urgency than ever before: we are at a critical point for the future of the planet.
For the first time, and in contrast to the customarily moderated tone of the panel, the authors warn that the impacts of a global temperature rise of 1.5°C will be much higher than anticipated in previous reports—and that the upper temperature goal of 2.0°C set out in the Paris Climate Agreement would result in catastrophic consequences for people and nature. The report was authored by 133 scientists and draws upon more than 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate change.
For those of us who specialize in climate change, it comes as no surprise that the report predicts dire consequences for coastal regions and the agricultural economies of Asia and Africa. What is critically important to us is that, for the first time, the report unequivocally states that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would dramatically reduce devastating economic, social, and environmental impacts that would result from a 2°C temperature increase.
Natural climate solutions
As an expert in land-based climate solutions, two things stand out to me about this report: First, it acknowledges the critical importance of natural climate solutions and clearly states that enhancing carbon sinks in natural ecosystems is key to limiting warming to 1.5°C. In fact, all emissions reduction pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C require afforestation and reforestation, land restoration, and soil carbon sequestration. While conventional thinking around the 1.5°C target has focused on reducing fossil fuel use, recent research and analysis confirms that forest conservation and other natural climate solutions are essential in meeting these goals.
Second, the report puts a heavy emphasis on working together, collective efforts, participatory action, and creating enabling environments. It concludes that a mix of climate adaptation and mitigation options to limit global warming to 1.5°C, implemented in a participatory and integrated manner, can enable rapid, systemic transitions in urban and rural areas. These are most effective when aligned with economic and sustainable development frameworks, and when local and regional decision-makers are supported by national governments.
The report acknowledges a complex challenge related to natural climate solutions: the likelihood of competing land-use interests impacting agricultural and food systems, biodiversity and other ecosystem functions and services. As such, strengthening the governance of national and sub-national authorities, civil society organizations, private sector sustainability commitments, indigenous leadership, and community engagement are imperatives for ensuring successful climate action and the permanence of carbon removal.
Many of the areas that are highlighted above are core to the Rainforest Alliance mission – from the application of climate-smart agriculture to enhancing governance at the landscape level to amplify the voices of local stakeholders in the management of their natural resources. Agroforestry systems (e.g. shade-grown coffee), reforestation, rehabilitation of degraded land areas, and sustainable community forestry are all interventions we use to protect and enhance important carbon sinks and avoid deforestation. Recent top-level research underpins the Rainforest Alliance's unique approach to conservation, which reduces carbon emissions through natural means.
By highlighting the value and importance of natural climate solutions, which, alongside fossil fuels’ emissions reductions, can help us attain the 1.5°C goal, this report illuminates a clear path forward. Forests offer more than 2/3 of the mitigation potential from terrestrial ecosystems, with reforestation and avoided deforestation playing the most important roles, but current national emissions reductions targets fall far short of achieving the 2°C—let alone the 1.5°C target, particularly regarding contributions from the land-use sector.
A new climate-informed reality
No single measure will deliver a silver bullet in the fight to address climate change. In fact, the only way we stand a fighting chance is to join forces to tackle this challenge from every possible angle. With the momentum for climate action accelerating, I sense that we are close to a tipping point that will form the basis for a new climate-informed reality. This awareness is clearing a path for the mainstreaming of climate stewardship into the future. While the world is feverishly developing low-carbon technologies, we mustn’t forget what solutions we already have at hand—let’s see the forest for the trees!
Martin Noponen is the Director for Climate at the Rainforest Alliance.