Why Nature-Based Solutions Won't Solve the Climate Crisis—They'll Just Make Rich People Even Richer
Imagine you're a Baka, a hunter gatherer in the Congo Basin forest. That land has been your home for generations. You know every stone and every tree there. Your grandparents are buried on that land. You and your people have nourished it, taken care of it and loved it. Now imagine that you're evicted and your house destroyed because, as someone explains to you, a white man living very far away, thinks that your forest has to become a Protected Area where only elephants are allowed to live. He likes elephants, they tell you. White men like elephants. Apparently he went up to space and realized that he likes your forest, and he is worried about climate change. That man created a company that produced 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year—the equivalent of burning through 140 million barrels of oil. But, they tell you, if your forest is protected, he can feel better about his emissions of CO2. You might wonder why he doesn't stop his emissions instead of destroying your life. The answer to that is money. You might also wonder how anyone can believe he's doing good. And the answer to that is the topic of this article.
With the proliferation of climate movements and the acceleration of global warming, the climate crisis has become undeniable for most. And yet emissions keep growing. Instead of facing the crisis, governments, business, and big conservation NGOs are calling on the finance sector for help, hiding their inaction and cheating citizens with dangerous and false slogans, like "nature positive", "nature-based solutions", "net-zero." These so-called 'solutions' are, overwhelmingly, empty promises that will lead to massive violations of Indigenous rights, while failing to solve the climate crisis. They divert attention from the real causes of environmental destruction and climate change, and from those who are most responsible, at the expense of the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who are least to blame.
What are Nature-based solutions?
The name sounds great, doesn't it? Appearing for the first time in 2009, in a paper prepared by the IUCN for global climate negotiations, the concept was pictured by big conservation organizations as the "forgotten solution" to climate change. The idea is very simple: nature holds the solutions to our various environmental crises, and, in the case of climate change, we can mitigate it by avoiding more emissions from natural and agricultural ecosystems (that is, creating more Protected Areas) or by increasing carbon sequestration within them (that is, planting trees or restoring forests). Here it is: a magical solution, that does not rely on significant changes by large economies and their major industries.
Global debates on climate and biodiversity now increasingly include the claim that 30% of global climate mitigation can be achieved through Nature-based solutions (NbS).
The real problem starts when nature-based solutions are presented as the best way to tackle the climate crisis, providing an easy solution that doesn't involve burning less fossil fuel and changing our consumption patterns—which are the only real answers. But as the required scale of NbS grows, so does the likelihood of a devastating impact on Indigenous Peoples and other local communities.
Hidden in the catchy name we find the usual (and not very new!) market-based approach. Practically speaking, NbS provides a new spin on what used to be called carbon offsets. "Nature", in this context, is considered a capital or an asset, something we can put a price on and trade in the market. Let's say that Shell (one of the big supporters of NbS) is releasing X amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In order to claim that it's respecting its climate commitments, Shell can carry on releasing exactly the same amount of CO2, as long as it also supports the creation of a Protected Area that stocks the same amount of CO2, or plants some trees that are supposed to absorb the same amount of CO2. This exchange, of course, is carried out in the financial markets, through the creation of carbon credits. And this is what governments mean by "net zero": they don't really intend to reduce their emissions to zero, they will simply claim to "offset" those emissions somewhere else.
Transforming nature into a form of capital (in this case, as carbon credits), that can then be sold in the market, is such a fashionable idea that it even got the support of the conservationist and TV personality Sir David Attenborough.
So what's wrong with this?
From a justice perspective: everything.
According to the paper more often used as evidence by those supporting NbS as a mitigation solution (which appeared in 2017, with co-authors including carbon traders and representatives of a major conservation organization), NbS "can provide 37% of cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030". This figure, in various forms ("37%", "one-third", "more than one third" etc) has been repeated many times over, gaining plausibility in the repetition.
But what does this figure actually mean?
The most effective known way of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is by planting trees. Indeed, according to the 2017 estimates, afforestation accounts for nearly half of the potential for climate mitigation through NbS. But achieving this potential would require planting trees over an estimated area of nearly 700 million hectares, almost the size of Australia. Where is that land going to be found? Certainly not in France or the United Kingdom (among the supporters of NbS). The clear risk is that many Indigenous peoples and local communities, among those least responsible for the climate crisis, lose their lands.
Amarlal Baiga, from the Baiga tribe, explains the impact of afforestation for offsetting on his community. In this case it's biodiversity offsetting, but the process and the devastating consequences are the same. "The forest department has forcefully put fences around my field and around everyone else's fields. They have put fences and planted teak trees. This land is ours, this land belonged to our ancestors. They made us plant the trees, they made fools out of us saying: "these plants will benefit you" but now they are harassing us and saying: "this jungle is ours and this land doesn't belong to you anymore."
His village's land has been taken as part of a compensatory afforestation project. In India, when forests are destroyed for things like mining, the companies responsible then have to give money to the CAMPA fund, which is spent on afforestation projects—but the biodiverse forests are usually replaced with monoculture plantations, often on the land of Adivasi people.
Another heavily promoted NbS, alongside afforestation, is the creation of so-called Protected Areas. The EU Commission new biodiversity initiative called NaturAfrica treats conservation areas as a massive carbon sink, that can "provide interesting opportunities to generate revenue streams for communities through carbon credits".
But this, too, is a huge threat to Indigenous Peoples. Several human rights organizations and independent investigations have shown for years how the creation of Protected Areas, especially in Africa and Asia, are done without the consent of Indigenous or local communities, who lose total access to their ancestral lands, and are accompanied by an increased militarization and violence. Protected Areas destroy the best guardians of the natural world, Indigenous peoples, in whose lands are found 80% of biodiversity.
It is somehow surreal that a hunter gatherer in the Congo Basin, whose way of life has nourished and protected those forests, will lose his access to the very land and food that sustains him, or be tortured and abused by a park ranger, because on the other side of the world a rich white man, whose companies are massive polluters, thinks he can compensate for his emissions by creating a Protected Area in Congo - instead of by ceasing to exploit workers, paying taxes and just stopping emissions.
Of course, not only billionaires like this idea. The conservation industry pushes NbS because they can make huge sums selling carbon credits from the Protected Areas they manage in order to fund new Protected Areas (and pay the million-dollar plus salaries of their CEOs).
So at the end of the story, Indigenous peoples, small farmers, local communities, fishers, will lose their lands for a climate crisis they didn't cause.
But will all of this save us from the worst consequences of climate change?
Not at all.
First, many of the tree projects claimed as a path to climate mitigation plant fast-growing trees like eucalyptus and acacia, to make money. This can actually increase rather than reduce carbon: existing vegetation has to be cleared and the new plantations are more susceptible to fires. Most such plantations are harvested in a few years to make things like paper and charcoal which quickly return all the captured carbon back to the atmosphere. Real forests of native trees would need to grow for decades before they start absorbing much carbon. Finally, large scale tree plantations destroy biodiversity and Indigenous peoples' lands.
Secondly, the plan to carve off 30% of the world as Protected Areas is also presented as a means to mitigate climate change. But quite apart from the disastrous impact on human diversity, there is no scientific evidence that doubling Protected Areas will actually be good for nature. Of the 20 targets in the previous global action plan on biodiversity, covering 2010-2020, the only one achieved was to increase to 17% the area of Earth designated as Protected Area. Yet biodiversity is said by the conservation industry itself to have declined ever faster during the same period. A 2019 study, looking at more than 12,000 Protected Areas across 152 countries, found that, with some individual exceptions, such conservation reserves have done nothing over the last 15 years to reduce human pressure on wildlife. Indeed, inside many, the pressure had worsened compared to unprotected areas. Many Protected Areas invite mass tourism, and are often home to trophy hunting, logging, and mining operations.
Finally, the finance industry has never solved any of our problems and won't do it this time. Leaving it to the market to decide what is important and what is not, according to "economic value" is likely to turn out to be catastrophic. Is an Indigenous territory, a forest, a grassland only worthy of protection because of the carbon it stores? What about the people living in that territory and the unquantifiable diversity they represent?
It is, precisely, the exploitation of natural resources for profit and the commodification of nature that brought us here in the first place. The finance industry wants to make money, not to protect our planet.
As the CEO of Mirova, an investment company, clearly said: "It is easy to estimate our effects on the climate. The carbon impact, tons of CO2 equivalent... All this speaks to finance. When we start discussing deforestation or ecosystem degradation, it's much more complicated, because there are no indicators or even international standards to measure these impacts."
As more evidence that this is about money (and not about nature), NbS are supported and implemented by the largest and most polluting corporations in the world and by the conservation industry, as a way to avoid the drastic changes really needed to tackle climate crisis. Among the supporters of NbS we find: Nestlé, BP, Chevron, Equinor, Total, Shell, Eni, BHP, Dow Chemical Company, Bayer, Boeing, Microsoft, Novartis, Olam, Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever, etc.
So are our governments and big corporations lying when they say they are "acting" to put an end to the climate crisis?
Yes. Offset schemes have already failed to prevent climate change. Expanding these schemes massively with Nature-Based Solutions will fail more massively. Offsetting schemes such as NbS should be abandoned, and instead governments should put in place real regulations over companies and finance to tackle the real causes of environmental destruction: exploitation of natural resources for profit and growing overconsumption, driven by the Global North. We also need to decolonize our approaches and stop marginalizing and silencing Indigenous Peoples and other local communities, who have been protecting our planet for generations. To achieve this governments must respect, protect and fully recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples' and other local communities to their lands. Finally, we need a radical change of our economic structure and of our way of living. The only real and just solutions to stop climate change will come when these topics are brought to the table. Until now, world leaders, conservation NGOs, business and some climate movements in the Global North have failed to do so.
This article was originally published in Common Dreams, Oct 2021.