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Date: 2024-05-27 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00016490

Environment
Ecological Systems

The natural world can help save us from climate catastrophe ... Ecological restoration can be a powerful means of protecting the atmosphere – we need to rewild on a massive scale

Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
The natural world can help save us from climate catastrophe Ecological restoration can be a powerful means of protecting the atmosphere – we need to rewild on a massive scale Letter: A natural solution to the climate disaster Shares 9,028 Comments 699 The Wash, Lincolnshire The Wash, Lincolnshire. ‘Salt marshes can stash carbon 40 times faster than tropical forests.’ Photograph: Michael David Murphy/Alamy I don’t expect much joy in writing about climate breakdown. On one side, there is grief and fear; on the other side, machines. I became an environmentalist because I love the living world, but I spend much of my life thinking about electricity, industrial processes and civil engineering. Technological change is essential, but to a natural historian it often feels cold and distancing. Today, however, I can write about something that thrills me: the most exciting field of research I have covered in years. Most climate scientists agree that it is now too late to prevent 1.5C or more of global heating only by cutting our production of greenhouse gases. Even if we reduced our emissions to zero tomorrow, we would probably overshoot this crucial temperature limit. To prevent a full-spectrum catastrophe, we need not only to decarbonise our economy in the shortest possible time, but also to draw down carbon dioxide that has already been released. A natural solution to the climate disaster Read more But how? The best-known proposal is called bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This means growing wood or straw in plantations, burning it in power stations to produce electricity, capturing the carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases and burying it in geological formations. Yet, if deployed at scale, it is likely to trigger either an ecological or a humanitarian disaster. One BECCS proposal, favoured by certain governments, would cover an area three times the size of India with plantations. This involves converting agricultural land, in which case BECCS would cause mass starvation, or converting wild land, in which case almost lifeless plantations would replace 50% of the world’s remaining natural forests. Even so, it might not be effective, as any carbon savings would be counteracted by the use of nitrogen fertiliser and the release of greenhouse gases from the soil as it’s churned up for planting. BECCS can lead only to catastrophe, and should be immediately abandoned. March was Australia's hottest on record, with temperatures 2C above average Read more Another option is direct air capture: extracting carbon dioxide with machines. Aside from the expense, which is likely to be massive, the amount of steel and concrete required to build these machines could help to push the world beyond certain climate tipping points before the positive effects are felt. None of this is necessary, however, because there is a much better and cheaper way of drawing carbon from the air. Natural climate solutions do it through the restoration of living systems. The greatest potential identified so far – as so much land can be used this way – is in protecting and restoring natural forests and allowing native trees to repopulate deforested land. The greatest drawdown potential per hectare (though the total area is smaller) is the restoration of coastal habitats such as mangroves, salt marsh and seagrass beds. They stash carbon 40 times faster than tropical forests can. Peaty soils are also vital carbon stores. They are currently being oxidised by deforestation, drainage, drying, burning, farming and mining for gardening and fuel. Restoring peat, by blocking drainage channels and allowing natural vegetation to recover, can suck back much of what has been lost. 0:37 Lord Howe Island: bleaching revealed on world's most southern coral reef – video Advertisement These are the best-studied natural climate solutions. They could help to solve two existential problems at once: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Their likely contribution is enormous – bigger than almost anyone guessed a few years ago – and other possibilities have scarcely been explored. For example, we currently have little idea of what the impact of industrial fishing may be on the seabed’s vast carbon store. By disturbing the sediments and lifting the carbon they contain into the water column, trawlers and dredgers are likely to expose it to oxygen, turning it into carbon dioxide. One study suggests that repeated trawling in the north-west Mediterranean has caused a reduction in carbon storage in the top 10 centimetres of sediments of up to 52%. Given the vast area trawled every year (most of the seabed on the world’s continental shelves), the climate impact could be enormous. Closing large parts of the seas to trawling could turn out to be a crucial climate strategy. Scientists have only begun to explore how the recovery of certain animal populations could radically change the carbon balance. For instance, forest elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia and tapirs in Brazil are natural foresters, maintaining and extending their habitats as they swallow the seeds of trees and spread them, sometimes across many miles, in their dung. White rhinos can play a major role in preventing runaway wildfires in African savannahs: their grazing prevents dry grass building up. If wolves were allowed to reach their natural populations in North America, one paper suggests, their suppression of herbivore populations would stop as much carbon being released every year as that produced by 30-70m cars. Healthy populations of predatory crabs and fish protect the carbon in salt marshes, as they prevent herbivorous crabs and snails wiping out the plants that hold the marshes together. Insects have ‘no place to hide’ from climate change, study warns Read more What I love about natural climate solutions is that we should be doing all these things anyway. Instead of making painful choices and deploying miserable means to a desirable end, we can defend ourselves from disaster by enhancing our world of wonders. However, nothing should be done without the involvement and consent of indigenous people and other local communities. Nor should damaging projects, such as monocultural plantations, be passed off as natural climate solutions. As a paper published this week in Nature shows, several governments are attempting this deception. Today, a small group of us is launching a campaign for natural climate solutions to receive the commitment and funding they deserve. At the moment, though their potential is huge, they have been marginalised in favour of projects that may be worse than useless, but which are profitable for corporations. Governments discuss the climate crisis and the ecological crisis in separate meetings when both disasters could be addressed together. We have set up a dedicated website, produced an animation and written a letter to governments and international bodies signed by prominent activists, scientists and artists. Advertisement We don’t want natural climate solutions to be used as a substitute for the rapid and comprehensive decarbonisation of our economies. The science tells us both are needed: the age of carbon offsets is over. But what this thrilling field of study shows is that protecting and rewilding the world’s living systems is not just an aesthetically pleasing thing to do. It is an essential survival strategy. • George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist Since you’re here… … we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting our independent, investigative reporting than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford. The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical. Every contribution we receive from readers like you, big or small, goes directly into funding our journalism. This support enables us to keep working as we do – but we must maintain and build on it for every year to come. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Support The Guardian Paypal and credit card Topics Climate change Opinion Carbon capture and storage (CCS) Greenhouse gas emissions comment Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Reuse this content Advertisement most viewed in US Live Trump arrives at US-Mexico border and repeats 'emergency' claim – as it happened 'Sugar daddy' website owner charged with debauchery in Belgium Hopes of Brexit progress fade as Labour says May has failed to compromise Officials forced way in to Stephen Moore home after failure to pay ex-wife debts My son’s behaviour towards his sister and me is inappropriate opinion Diary of an assistant nurse: people go without showers so others are not left in their faeces Anonymous 6hDiary of an assistant nurse: people go without showers so others are not left in their faeces Martin Rowson on the progress of May and Corbyn's Brexit talks – cartoon 9h Martin Rowson on the progress of May and Corbyn's Brexit talks – cartoon The Guardian view on the gender pay gap: acts must follow facts 9h The Guardian view on the gender pay gap: acts must follow facts The Guardian view on online politics: transparency is essential 9h The Guardian view on online politics: transparency is essential comments (699) Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion. Guardian Pick Fine sentiments but how do we go about this rewinding? Take the Yorkshire moors and the a Derbyshire Peaks. Currently they mainly support sheep, heather, game birds and a little farming. It would be better to return these spaces to a wild state of forest, to promote biodiversity and reduce the risk of flooding. Vested interests won't stand for it. Mot for a minute. Jump to comment CordTrousers 3d ago 35 36 Guardian Pick I was brought up by the huge salt marshes of North Norfolk. They are wonderful, peaceful, atmospheric places full of all the diversity of life - and actually a potential defence against rising seas. Much of the area immediately inland was drained from the 1700s onwards, but now it would make perfect sense to let them revert to their origin. Jump to comment UnevenSurface 3d ago 48 49 View more comments Most popular The lesson of this Brexit ordeal? The EU is a club worth belonging to The lesson of this Brexit ordeal? 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