Help the Earth to Help Us
Updated: May 28, 2021
How You Can Engage in Nature-based Climate Solutions
Let’s face it. We need the earth more than it needs us. If the human species were to disappear suddenly, nature would carry on with its cycles and regenerate itself. However, we are here, and we’re disrupting and damaging the natural cycles and biodiversity of the planet, and setting up the conditions that could make the planet unlivable for us.
While the earth has been doing its best to absorb our impact, it’s being taxed by the unrelenting stress we as a species continue to unleash on it. To help ourselves, we need to support our planet in doing what it does best. Yes, we need to eliminate emissions rapidly, but we also need to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.
Luckily, the most accessible and least costly way to do this is through nature-based solutions (NbS). As a recent Washington Post article states, “Humanity’s greatest ally against climate change is Earth itself…. Ecosystems can draw down carbon and buffer us from the worst effects of climate change — but only if we protect them.” A recent study from the University of Oxford verified NbS implemented on both the land and sea, along with ecosystem restoration, could end up removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year, more than all global transportation emissions, and create cascading tipping points for other GHG emissions.
Before I get into how we can help the natural world to help us, let me first briefly describe the carbon cycle, which underpins nature-based solutions.
The Carbon Cycle
The amount of carbon on earth is fixed at about 65,500 billion metric tons, with most of it stored in rocks and sediments. Other reservoirs (the ocean, atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels), hold and cycle the rest. Carbon is constantly moving from place to place. Where the carbon is located — in the atmosphere or on Earth — is constantly changing as life forms die, volcanoes erupt, fires blaze, and we burn fossil fuels. The ocean also plays a role in absorbing and releasing carbon from the atmosphere.
Until the industrial age, nature kept carbon levels balanced. The amount of carbon naturally released from reservoirs was equal to the amount that was naturally absorbed by them. Maintaining this carbon balance made the planet habitable. However, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere has been rising rapidly as humans extract and burn fossil fuels and cut down forests for agriculture and other land development. As a result, NOAA says the “amount of carbon in the atmosphere is already considerably greater than at any time in the last 800,000 years.”
This extra carbon needs to go somewhere, so it’s taken up by the other carbon reservoirs. According to NASA, plants and the ocean have absorbed about 55 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere while about 45 percent has stayed in the atmosphere. Eventually (over thousands of years), the land and oceans will take up much of the extra carbon dioxide, but until then the excess carbon in the atmosphere raises temperatures and endangers life for all living organisms.
Nature-Based Solutions and Carbon Sinks
As you read the carbon cycle information above, you probably already guessed how nature-based solutions might help restore the planet back to its natural sustainable ecosystem. They have to do with supporting and enhancing natural carbon reservoirs to draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) states that “Nature-based Solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural and modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, to provide both human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”
Sometimes these climate solutions are also referred to as carbon sinks because they absorb more carbon than they release. A 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concluded that natural systems can store almost 24 gigatons of carbon per year — roughly two-thirds of what people emit, if we would give them a chance. However, there are limits on what these sinks can take out of the atmosphere without harming the ecosystem. For instance, the ocean is now becoming too acidic because of the amount of carbon it is absorbing, which is harming corals and other marine life.
Land Sinks: Plants absorb carbon via photosynthesis and then store it in their living biomass. Organic matter (decomposing organisms) also makes soil and keeps carbon underground for a long time. When scientists at at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment looked at carbon storage in plants and soil together, they found that “Soils store more carbon worldwide than is contained in all plant biomass,” most particularly in grasslands. According to the Global Carbon Project and a recent study published in Nature, land sinks currently sink 26–30% of human-caused emissions back into the Earth. Types of land sinks include Tropical and Temperate Forests, Grasslands, Perennial Plants, and Soil.
Ocean and Coastal Sinks: The oceans of the world are the largest natural carbon sink. They cover 71% of our planet’s surface and absorb about 50% of the carbon put into the atmosphere. According to Project Drawdown, the world’s oceans have “absorbed at least 90% of the excess heat generated by recent climate changes, and, since the 1980s, have taken up 20–30% of human-created carbon dioxide.” World Resources Institute (WRI), which has an Oceans Program and published an article on their recommended ocean agenda, also says that ocean-based sinks “can deliver as much as 21% of the emissions reductions the world needs to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).”
What makes the oceans such an important Nature-based Solution is their size and multiple processes for absorbing carbon. Plankton, corals, fish, algae, and other microorganisms living in the seas capture carbon as they grow. Other carbon cycle processes take place where the ocean meets the air and the land on the coasts. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater. Water based plants, like kelp and mangrove forests, protect the land, create a coastal habitat for a variety of sea life and sequester carbon. Types of ocean and coastal sinks include seas, sea plants like kelp, corals and other carbon-based sea life, and mangrove forests.
How to Help the Earth Help Us
Given the importance of these sinks what can we do to support and engage in regenerative nature-based climate solutions?
First, we can look to the Three Steps to Natural Cooling for general guidance. We need to protect the natural sinks already working and manage them to continue to sequester carbon. Finally, we need to restore those natural ecosystems that we’ve destroyed.
Here are some specific ways, suggested by Project Drawdown and others, in which we can help sequester carbon on the land and in the sea and help them regenerate themselves.
Reduce Food Waste and Shift to a Plant Rich Diet. Both these actions prevent deforestation because they lower the demand for food and rangeland for cattle, stopping additional clearing and protecting existing carbon reservoirs. You can play a direct role by:
Eating less meat and more plants. Eat a few vegetarian meals a week. Eat more of fresh and sustainably produced fruits and vegetables.
Reducing food waste at home. Check out useful food waste tips from the EPA.
Demanding that farms, grocery stores, and restaurants get extra food to those who need it instead of throwing it away. Take part in one of the ten food waste campaigns listed here.
Supporting organizations, like the 59 groups Foodtank lists in this article, with donations and activism to further this cause.
Protect and Restore Peatlands, Grasslands, and Forests. Let peatlands, grasslands, and forests continue to do what they do best by protecting them from human disturbance. Where we have degraded ecosystems, restoration can help them recuperate form and function, including absorbing and storing more carbon.You can engage by:
Planting trees. You can plant trees on your own or join a local, regional, national, or international campaign. The National Forest Foundation has regional programs in the U.S. and the Trillion Tree Campaign has projects all over the world.
Advocating for banning deforestation, like Norway did in 2016. Work with organizations like Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency, who fight deforestation, stand with indigenous communities, promote sustainable choices, and ask companies to commit to ending deforestation.
Demanding that local legislators keep existing natural ecosystems undisturbed.
Advocating for restoring degraded land, so it can absorb and store more carbon.
Contacting your State Wetland Manager to find out what they are doing in your area to protect and restore peatlands/wetlands in your region.
Contacting the Native Grasslands Alliance to find out which organizations are working to restore grasslands in your region.
Supporting one of the 7 organizations listed here that work to protect the Amazon Rainforest or join one of the groups, like the Rainforest Alliance or Conservation International, that work on reforestation.
Learning about agroforestry and engage with one of the 19 Organizations celebrating the role of forests in the food system.
Supporting an indigenous community working on conservation and restoration, like Defenders of the Black Hills, or the #LandBack movement and campaign. These communities have long been stewards of the land, air, and water, which has long-lasting implications for climate. A 2019 U.N.-backed report showed that “nature on indigenous peoples’ lands is degrading less quickly than in other areas.”
Support a Shift in Agriculture to Regenerative Practices. Many farm and climate experts are now working to transition how we grow food from methods that contribute climate crisis to practices that regenerate the soil, enhance biodiversity, and store carbon in the ground. Rodale Institute, recently published a white paper, Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution, that outlines seven farming practices lead to carbon sequestration in soil: rotating crops; planting cover crops and perennial plants and grains; keeping crop residues; using natural sources of fertilizer, like compost; integrating crops and livestock; reducing tilling; and eliminating synthetic chemicals. You can play a direct role in this shift by:
Buying food from farmers’ markets and asking your local farmers which of the regenerative practices they use. Seek high-quality meat from regenerative producers. Look for terms like “pasture-raised,” “pastured,” “grass-fed,” or “free-range.”
Asking your local grocery store and restaurants for regeneratively produced food.
Starting a movement to get your local municipality to create a compost program.
Demanding food companies to source regenerative ingredients. Some companies, like Danone and Annies, are already taking action to support and incorporate regenerative agriculture into their products.
Supporting organizations that are working on scaling up regenerative agriculture and agroforestry practices, like Green America Center for Sustainability Solutions’ Soil and Climate Alliance, or one of the Agroforestry organizations listed on this site.
Buying products made with perennial grains and plants, which have much longer root systems that store carbon deeper in the ground. The Land Institute has developed a perennial grain Kernza, now sold as flour on Amazon.
Supporting organizations like the Land Institute and the Salk Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory that are working on creating plants that store more carbon, deeper underground.
Finding out how your state is supporting regenerative agriculture. Some states, like California, Hawaii, Colorado, New Mexico, and Maryland to name a few, are creating policies to support and advance soil health management practices.
Asking local representatives to restore degraded lands in your region by increasing plant growth which will enhance soil carbon sequestration.
Protect and Restore Coastal Ecosystems. The land and sea intricately intertwine. Because we have degraded these “blue carbon” ecosystems in many places, restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows plays a vital role in climate change, as well as storm protection and healthy fisheries. Mangrove forests are one of the most cost-effective solutions. Although they only occupy 0.5 percent of Earth’s shorelines, they account for 10 percent of the coast’s carbon storage capacity. You can engage by:
Advocating for local and national policies and investments to prevent further loss of mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes and kelp beds, and ensure their effective protection.
Supporting organizations that are expanding efforts to restore coastal and marine ecosystems, like the Million Mangroves Project, the Global Mangrove Alliance, The Nature Conservancy’s Restoring Seagrass project, the Seagrass Restoration Network, and the Surfrider Foundation Coastal Restoration Program.
Helping to restore coral reefs. 90% of the reefs across the globe are in danger of disappearing by 2043. Groups like the Coral Restoration Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory are working to rebuild resilient coral reefs.
Demanding that legislators establish well managed and climate smart marine protected areas and commit to protecting 30% of the world’s lands and water by 2030, as well as prioritize and fund nature-based solutions.
Support Regenerative Ocean Farming: We can also apply regenerative farming principles for growing fiber and food in the sea, while removing carbon from the atmosphere. For instance, giant kelp is among the best plants for removing GHG out of the atmosphere. Their flexible stems and leafy blades form a dense underwater canopy that can store 20 times as much carbon as an equivalent expanse of terrestrial trees. You can support a shift in aquaculture by:
Buying and eating seaweed. Check out Kelpful, to learn more about how eating seaweed can help save the planet.
Supporting organizations, like GreenWave, and Ocean Regenerative Aquaculture, and the Climate Foundation, that are working to scale up polyculture methods for growing seaweed, kelp, and shellfish that sequester carbon and rebuild reef ecosystems.
Buying sustainably caught seafood. Learn more about how in this article and where in this article. Find out where to get local, fresh seafood at the Local Catch site. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s tools and guide to sustainable seafood.
Advocating for policies that promote and support regenerative ocean farming.
What will you do to help the earth help us?
Nature is our greatest ally in the effort to address the climate crisis we’ve created. But it cannot endure endless abuse. We must start protecting and bolstering the systems that will save us by removing carbon from the atmosphere, protecting biodiversity, and providing climate adaptation for vulnerable communities.
This won’t be easy. As a recent study by Oxford outlined, we need to prevent “270 million hectares of deforestation, restore 678 million hectares of ecosystems (double the size of India), and improve the management of 2.5 billion hectares of land by 2050.”
Let’s increase our investments now in nature-based solutions. If you are like me, you want your grandchildren to experience the benefits of the Earth that we’ve enjoyed. Let’s make sure that we help Nature to help us live well on this planet we call home for many generations to come.
All the best,