Nature restoration as a climate solution not enough to reduce peak global temperatures
Nature restoration cannot be scaled up quickly enough to compensate for fossil fuel emissions, new research led by the University of Melbourne has found.
Published today in One Earth, the research found that nature restoration, the process of restoring degraded natural ecosystems, is crucial but any climate benefits are dwarfed by the scale of ongoing fossil fuel emissions.
Lead author Dr Kate Dooley said nature restoration can marginally lower peak warming but should not be seen as a substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions.
“Any form of land-based carbon dioxide removal takes decades to be realised, meaning the benefits from nature restoration could take generations to make a notable reduction in global temperatures,” Dr Dooley said.
“If we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement then relying on nature restoration and land management options are not the complete solution. We need policies that respect and understand the most crucial factor to mitigating rising temperature, which is to categorically move away from fossil fuels.”
The research team calculated the carbon dioxide global removal potential from land-management approaches focussed on restoring degraded natural ecosystems and agricultural land, and the contribution this would make to a global 1.5°C temperature limit from now until the year 2100.
These results were combined with very low emissions pathways that see the transition to renewable energy by mid-century, showing that the carbon removals had little effect on peak temperature compared to reducing fossil fuel emissions.
The process of restoring and repairing natural environments is critical in addressing the ongoing crises of biodiversity loss, but climate benefits can be limited and must be managed carefully.
“Some activities that are being labelled as nature restoration, such as monoculture tree plantations, can actually degrade environments – destroying biodiversity, increasing pollution, and reducing potential farming lands,” Dr Dooley said.
Co-author Dr Zebedee Nicholls said there is a risk of incorrectly thinking that strong action in the land sector will avoid the need to phase out fossil fuels.
“In recent years, the role of nature restoration in climate response and policy has been receiving increased focus, yet the potential in terms of carbon removal and temperature reductions is often lost,” Dr Nicholls said.
“It’s simply not enough to say we can just plant more trees. Relying on the land sector is not a viable answer to the climate crisis. Our study serves as a reminder that land and nature-based solutions are no substitute for avoiding emissions in the first place.”