Can Natural Climate Solutions Help in Carbon Capture?
The Glasgow Climate Pact was the first to recognise the role that forests play in isolating carbon.
In 2021, the Glasgow Climate Pact became the first climate agreement to explicitly recognise the role that forests play in sequestering carbon, and the crucial role that nature-based solutions can play in changing the trajectory of our global emissions.
The recognition came in the wake of growing global conversations on the role planting trees could play in reversing carbon emissions that culminated in organisations like the World Economic Forum launching extensive tree-planting initiatives across the world.
These conversations were sparked by a 2019 study that appeared in Science, claiming that planting 1 trillion trees would sequester over a third of all greenhouse gases emitted since the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
With global leadership failing to deliver on emissions reductions and resistance to emissions reductions policies from climate denialists and fossil fuel firms, tree planting gained interest as a less controversial intervention for sequestering carbon – and for fighting climate change.
Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Capture
In order to keep emissions below the range that will lead to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise, carbon concentration in the air has to be kept below 430 ppm (parts per million).
Currently, this figure stands at 415 ppm and at current rates of emissions, that means the world would cross the carbon concentration threshold in the next five years.
Even with the highest possible emissions cuts, the world would still cross this threshold – unless we remove between 100 to 1000 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
In its report, the IPCC pointed to carbon capture and storage as a vital part of climate action, and direct air capture as a promising technology in this arena. Simply put, carbon capture and storage covers any activity that draws down carbon from the atmosphere and then stores it in modified form.
Bioenergy carbon capture and storage, for example, involves rapid and large-scale plantation and use of biomass in energy generation. Direct air capture, by comparison, involves sucking carbon directly out of the atmosphere and storing it by burying it underground, leading to a more permanent removal of carbon from the atmosphere.
However, direct air capture technology is in its most nascent stages. The world’s biggest machine for direct air capture of carbon currently can remove only 4000 tonnes of carbon annually.
Bioenergy carbon capture and storage faces its own problems: plantations replace natural ecosystems which sequester and store more carbon, using these plantations in fuel creates its own emissions.
Restoring Ecosystems – The Most Efficient, Tested Tool in the Climate Arsenal
30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is the result of land use change and forestry. A 2017 study found that better agricultural management practices and the protection and restoration of critical terrestrial ecosystems could potentially sequester nearly 10 billion tonnes of carbon annually: a third of the amount needed to keep the world within the 2 degree temperature rise carbon threshold.
Natural carbon sinks and their potential are also recognised in India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In 2015, India committed to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5–3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
Tree planting has now taken centre stage as the natural climate solution of greatest interest globally, but it is not without its criticisms. The 2019 Science study, for example, categorised savanna and grassland ecosystems as wastelands that were ripe for tree planting – including areas like the Serengeti plains.
But savannas and grasslands play a critical role in sequestering carbon in their own right, and planting trees in non-forest ecosystems increases other ecological risks while reducing ecosystem integrity that contributes to carbon sequestration.
Other conservationists fear that the push towards tree planting will privilege single and non-native species plantations that grow fast, but ultimately store less carbon than healthy natural diverse forests while using up natural water resources. In the worst case, these plantations may even replace natural forest ecosystems.
Putting the right tree in the right place, therefore, is equally key in ensuring natural climate solutions are used effectively in the fight against climate change.
In India, this restoration represents an opportunity – especially in deforestation hotspots like the northeast, which also holds 25% of the country’s forests.
Restoring its degraded forest lands and transitioning to climate friendly cultivation practices like agroforestry could help sequester over 5 million tonnes of carbon annually.
In total, the region has over 2.3 million hectares of land that can be reforested, and a further 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land that can be rewilded through agroforestry.
In total, rewilding these lands would require the seeding of 4.2 billion natural assets (trees) across the region.
The economic and social potential of this opportunity is immense. Such a large-scale natural capital investment plan would create jobs for over 2 million households.
Natural capital earnings through agroforestry produce, sustainable bamboo and timber, and mindful natural tourism will generate earnings up to INR 450,544 crores over a 30-year period, against an investment of INR 22,339 crores.
Investing these earnings back in the community could deliver universal basic assets such as healthcare, education, energy, water access to over 6 million households – with spending on healthcare and education matching international OECD standards.
For northeast India, the pledges and formal recognition of forests and indigenous peoples in the fight against climate change at COP26 present new opportunities for communities to access the financial and capacity support required to effectively steward their forests in a changing climate scenario.
Doing so would also increase the region’s overall climate resilience, as low forest per capita is currently one of the biggest climate risks in the region as per a 2019 study by the department of Science & Technology.
India, meanwhile, can meet its forest-based NDC and its national goal for increasing forest cover up to 30% by targeting intervention in its key deforestation hotspot.
The quicker we can ramp up our collective efforts to make this transition the better placed we will be to face the biodiversity and climate crisis.
Businesses are looking for investment opportunities in nature-based solutions and India, with its vast ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots, has an opportunity to tap into a growing carbon market.
It is an opportunity to invest in creating better, sustainable jobs in rural India, enhance the economic and spending power of households and businesses and foster a robust, future-oriented economy.
(Ranjit Barthakur is a social entrepreneur and the creator of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures in the Eastern Himalayas. He is the founder and president of Balipara Foundation. He is also a member of the governing body of the Northeast Initiative Development Agency.)
(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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