The promise and pitfalls of relying on nature as part of our climate change solution

Date(s) - 22/09/2023
9:30 am - 11:30 am
Lister Centre, U of A Conference Services, Edmonton Alberta

Terrestrial plants and soils house more than three times as much carbon as is found in the atmosphere, and at least 250x as much carbon as is released each year in fossil fuel burning. Moreover, terrestrial ecosystems – i.e. forests, savannas and grasslands (but mostly forests)- have already absorbed more than 25% of all the CO2 pollution we’ve put into the atmosphere over recent centuries, and along with similar pollutant removal (i.e. “CO2 scrubbing”) by the oceans, have slowed climate warming by more than half. That is an unquantifiable ecosystem service by nature, likely in the quadrillions of dollars category, and is the reason forest carbon sequestration is among a handful of key mechanisms considered collectively as part of a strategy we can deploy to slow and stop climate change.  

So it is no surprise that scientists, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, and the public all hope that by tweaking how and where we manage vegetation and soils, we can encourage nature to absorb a lot more atmospheric carbon and hold on to it in plants and soils.  A wide variety of nature-based solutions, that might enhance carbon storage in forests, grasslands or agricultural systems, have been proposed (some even have social justice and biodiversity benefits too). Although the devil is always in the details, it is true that there is substantial capacity for nature to ‘hold’ more carbon. For example, as I will present during my talk, forests alone (and excluding forests converted to urban or agricultural use) could in fact house additional carbon equivalent to half of the amount of carbon we will emit in fossil fuel burning in the next four to five decades. Savannas, grasslands, and agricultural lands could also house yet additional substantial carbon. However, figuring out how to make substantial use of these natural ‘tools’ will be an enormous challenge, given myriad political, economic, ecological, climate, social, and cultural barriers. Ignoring such hurdles means attempts to do so will be far less effective than they might otherwise be. And recognizing such hurdles does not diminish our need to deploy nature as a climate-change fighting tool. Instead, by facing the reality of our challenges we could potentially make good use of nature’s capacities to clean up after us yet again. 

Peter Reich is an ecologist recognized for his research on plants and ecosystems across a range of scales. He is known for working with international collaborative networks to develop three new directions in the field of ecology: (1) functional biogeography, (2) global change biology and (3) biodiversity and ecosystem functioning research. Reich has been instrumental in turning the largely descriptive comparative biogeography sensu von Humboldt and Schimper into a modern quantitative science, and in developing ecologically realistic, and physiologically and biogeochemically rigorous, experiments testing plant and ecosystem response to rising carbon dioxide, climate warming, changing rainfall patterns, and to loss of biodiversity. He is also well regarded for translating knowledge across hierarchical, temporal and spatial scales, and helping incorporate such knowledge into models at continental to global scales. Reich currently serves as the Director of the Institute for Global Change Biology at the University of Michigan. He also maintains a joint affiliation at the University of Minnesota, where he holds the positions of Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, and the F.B. Hubachek Sr. Chair in Forest Ecology and Tree Physiology. Reich is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Reich has published more than 800 peer-reviewed research papers, with more than 150,000 citations and an H-index of 193 to date, and has been ranked the No. 1 ecology and evolution scientist in the world by, a prominent academic platform for scientists. Reich has actively contributed to science education by helping launch the science education channel, MinuteEarth, which has reached over 400 million views on YouTube and other platforms. He has, however, failed so far to slow or stop either climate change or biodiversity loss, so his work has just begun.

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