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07 Dec 2015: Paris COP21 — How ‘Landscape
Carbon’ Can Be Part of a Solution on Climate

Fixing climate change will be achieved by fixing fossil fuel emissions, right? Well, yes — but there are other options. By some estimates, as much as half the carbon dioxide so far put into the atmosphere by human activity has come from trashing the land — by deforestation, draining wetlands, overgrazing grasslands and the destruction of soils. So why not bring that carbon back to earth by restoring damaged landscapes?

Advocates here at the Paris conference say replanting forests and reviving soils could realistically absorb a quarter of current industrial emissions. And they want to start in Africa.

The continent may often conjure up images of spreading deserts and ransacked forests. But some of the biggest hitters in global environmental management unveiled plans in Paris for a grand restoration of

Wikimedia Commons
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, stressed the need for landscape restoration.
Africa's landscapes.

"Carbon will come back to earth in trees, bushes, crops and soils, where it will bring life and prosperity," said Andrew Steer, CEO of the World Resources Institute, which has masterminded the plan with the World Bank, the African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development, and others. They want $2 billion a year spent on restoring 100 million hectares of Africa by 2030 — an area three times the size of Germany.

The plans were announced to some 3,000 delegates attending a Global Landscapes Forum in Paris on Sunday. "We need landscape restoration for development and for climate," said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister.

Some African countries said they are already at work. Ethiopian ministers told the forum they had restored a million hectares of farm soils in the drought-hit Tigray region and elsewhere in the past 20 years, through terracing, irrigation and other activities carried out for a month a year by 26 million villagers. They claimed this work allowed the country to survive two recent bad rains without recourse to famine aid.

Kenya has written into its new constitution a target of upping forest cover from 7 to 10 per cent, said Alfred Gichu, the country's forest restoration coordinator.

Land restoration is the latest buzz phrase among global environmental managers. It aims to tie together climatic, environmental, and economic development goals -- by re-growing forests and restoring the productivity of soils so they can grow more food, store more carbon, and help protect communities against drought, floods, and violent weather from climate change.

Some delegates contended that restoration might also reduce the chances of environmental refugees moving to foreign lands or turning to terrorism.

Restoration features in the Sustainable Development Goals signed off at the United Nations in September. The goals include commitments to "restore degraded land and soil" and to "achieve a land-degradation neutral world" by 2030. In October, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification adopted the same aim, arguing that soil loss costs half a trillion dollars a year in lost productivity, escaping carbon, and damage to ecosystems.

At the Paris talks, money for adapting to climate change through measures such as land restoration is a central demand from African governments. And both the World Bank and France, the hosts, have responded by committing $4 billion to the Great Green Wall, a scheme to revive ecosystems to hold back the Sahara desert.

But Africa is far from alone on the restoration trail. Brazil has plans for putting back lost Amazon rainforest. After cutting deforestation rates in the Amazon by 80 percent over the past decade, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff promised in Paris last week that Brazil would now be "restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares of forests and another 15 million hectares of degraded pasture land."

Indonesia, meanwhile, announced during the forum a scheme for protecting large peat bogs in South Sumatra, by blocking drains installed by foresters and palm-oil growers. There would be both ecological and climatic paybacks. As drained peat bogs dry out, they release greenhouse gases. Indonesia has the world's largest expanses of peat bogs, which are currently responsible for half its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is seeking $4 billion in international funding to restore them.

In their emissions pledges at the Paris conference, many countries have calculated that carbon captured in land restoration projects will offset some of their industrial emissions. Russia's pledge, for instance, says its emissions target is "subject to maximum possible amount of absorbing capacity” of its forests.

This may or may not be good for natural forests. Ivan Valentik, the head of Russia's forestry agency, said last week that "our strategy is for more intense forest management which can increase both carbon sequestration and timber production."

Promises to offset industrial emissions by increasing carbon "sinks" on land also raise concerns among scientists responsible for checking whether countries keep to their promises. This is because the exact amount of carbon absorbed or released from the land or forests is hard to measure. Carbon fraud, or plain wishful thinking, would be hard to detect. The risk is that landscape carbon could become a black hole in the emissions commitments likely to be agreed here at the end of this week.

— Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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