The Private Sector Can Make Them Better
The Quick Rundown:
Nature-based climate solutions are an increasingly utilized tool in the environmental arsenal. They have also generated a lot of debate. So this week, we’re doing a deep dive into NCS, making the case for why we need them to reach the critical goal of a net-zero economy—one that emits no more carbon dioxide than it removes from the atmosphere. We also look at how three major companies are playing the offset game and offer our ideas on how they can do better.
The Good, the Bad, the Buzz
Nature-based climate solutions (NCS)—initiatives to use nature for absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere—have attracted a lot of buzz. Much of it is positive. Corporations are relying on NCS to make ambitious climate commitments. VCs are rushing to fund start-ups to boost supply. Mark Carney is leading a weighty taskforce to improve the market for offsets.
But there’s negative buzz too. Journalists and activists are lambasting projects they say failed. Some prominent academics argue that NCS will never work. And there are activists who say the strategy is one more example of badly flawed “market-based approaches” to address the climate challenge.
It probably comes as no surprise that I’m bullish on NCS. Full disclosure: I’ve been working on them for a long time. First, as CEO of the Nature Conservancy and now as an advisor to, and investor in, companies operating in this field. There are good reasons to be optimistic about their potential—most importantly, we likely need NCS to reach net zero. But I also recognize that there is room for improvement and important questions to resolve. Private sector leaders can and should step up to help the environmental community improve this climate strategy. It’s in their interest to do so.
My Personal NCS Journey
The USCAP project was already underway when I joined TNC way back in July of 2008, so I began engaging with NCS almost immediately. The goal was to pass a federal cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions. My particular focus was a hard push for forest offsets to be included in the bill. Why? Offsets would lower the cost of emission reductions by increasing the supply of emission reduction opportunities. There might be better technological breakthroughs down the road that allow for other low or even lower-cost ways to decarbonize— let’s hope so—but NCS works right now and, if used at scale, buys us needed time. Lower costs mean less burden on the economy and allow for more political support. Ultimately, the USCAP project was unsuccessful; the bill passed in the House—known as Waxman Markey—but failed in the Senate. We learned a lot from the effort. One key lesson: do whatever it takes to keep the cost of emission reductions low.
The next challenge I grappled with as CEO of TNC was this: How could we raise enough money to protect nature on a large enough scale? We did everything we could to increase donations. We took our annual philanthropic fundraising up by about 3X to $750 million per year. That’s a lot of money. (Thank you, donors) But it wasn’t enough to meet ambitious conservation goals, and we knew it never would be.
Our solution? Highlight the opportunity to invest in nature. Show society that in exchange for protecting nature you obtain valuable “ecosystem services” such as clean air to breathe, healthy water to drink, beautiful areas for recreation, habitat for biodiversity, and—importantly—sequestration of carbon. This is another important rationale for NCS—they raise capital for conservation that not only protects nature but also delivers valuable services to humankind (including carbon sequestration). NCS makes it easier to build support for addressing climate.
Later in my tenure, I persuaded the TNC board to make the climate challenge our top priority. We asked: What’s the most impactful way for a conservation organization to make a critical difference on climate? And the answer we came up with: Protecting ecosystems at scale. After all, that’s what we’d been doing for more than 60 years. But how much carbon could we sequester this way?
We put our scientists to work to find out. They teamed up with outside experts. And they published this peer-reviewed paper concluding that protecting nature could achieve as much as one-third of the carbon emission reductions the world needs by 2030. That’s huge! Some in the science community disagree. But even half this amount would be enormous. Hence, another reason to support NCS—scale.
So, three big initial takeaways for me about NCS:
- They lower the cost of emission reductions.
- They fund conservation.
- They can be deployed at a huge scale.
But, as with everything else in the climate toolkit, there are complications we need to address.