This blog is part of a series on Biosphere Earth. To review other posts, visit the TOC. Here is part 13.
This blog shows that when one combines the carbon reduction promise (stated here) with the climate system benefits of protecting and restoring Earth’s vital organ ecosystems — we’re looking at the most realistic way to solve climate change.
Maps speak louder than words
Most of our life-support system’s priority ecosystems have been identified. Let’s first look at three maps. These show, in essence, macro-level organization of Biosphere Earth’s productivity; our life support-system’s productivity.
#1. Global natural carbon absorption (1998)
#2. Global land biodiversity (2013)
#3. Global coral biodiversity (2016)
Take map #1 above. This map shows Primary Production of our life support system — aka. net positive absorption of atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis, as it was understood about 25 years ago. This is important because a lot the ecosystems identifying as most valuable in this 1998 study have since been destroyed, fragmented and degraded. These are the places to restore first.
Map #2, Land biodiversity, confirms that vertebrate biodiversity on land, a good proxy for all land biodiversity, overlaps almost exactly with global primary production (map #1).
Map #3 depicts Coral biodiversity, a good proxy for most ocean biodiversity. This map shows the majority of diversity is concentrated in the Coral Triangle (Indonesia) and in coastal ecosystems.
These maps don’t cover everything, but you can see a few organizing principles at a glance. 1, The most biodiverse ecosystems overlap with the most productive ecosystems. This is good. 2, Carbon absorption and biodiversity are densest on tropical lands, then densest in global forests, coastal ecosystems, and high lattitude oceans. The Coral Triangle is priority 1 for ocean biodiversity. 3, Carbon and biodiversity are more concentrated on land than in oceans, per square mile. 4, A significant portion of global oceans are low productivity and low biodiversity. Lands, in fact, are more productive than oceans providing about 54% of global Primary Production each year.
In a nutshell — one model we should urgently pursue today is stewardship and restoration of these infrastructures (pictured above), Earth’s most biodiverse, bio-productive ecosystems.
Map #1 gives us a picture of what Biosphere Earth was like in the mid-90s when less than 6 Billion people lived on it, when our biosphere was functioning better than today because it had fewer people and more wilderness and wildlife than today.
And since today we are surging towards 8 Billion people on Earth within a couple of years and continuing to expand our physical footprints, pollutions, and net negative consumptions, the latest science is taking on mapping out what we should prioritize to rescue ourselves from bio/eco collapse.
#4. Save biodiversity & climate (2020)
Because forests are typically the most concentrated / most productive ecosystems, particularly in the Tropics, another recent study shows that just allowing currently degraded forests to regrow would reduce annual greenhouse emissions up to about 25% a year. Here’s that map. (Dark green areas have most value, reduce CO2 at a rate of +9 tons/acre/year.)
#5. Natural forest re-growth (2020)
How big is “about 25%”? For comparison sake, having a 100% clean power grid for the entire world’s electricity and heating, the #1 global polluter, would reduce global greenhouse emissions about 25% per year. The same amount as just letting degraded forests regrow.
Bigger than that, the Global Tree Restoration Potential study (map below) shows that re-growing Biosphere Earth’s most productive ecosystems, forests, everywhere currently possible would remove up to 2/3rds of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere since about 1800. 2/3rds! Here’s that map, #6. Blue = greatest amount of open area.
#6. Global Reforestation Potential (2019)
But Here’s the Key Point
Going back to maps 1, 2 & 3, some ecosystems are far more valuable than others, and this is where the focus needs to be. The October 2020 study (Map #7 below), Global priority areas for ecosystem restoration, shows that protecting and restoring Earth’s least expensive / most biospherically productive lands would remove about 49% of all greenhouse emissions since 1800 and save +70% of threatened biodiversity. This is the most sensible priority i have ever heard of. It’s also is the only realistic way to support global climate system restoration.
#7. Global Restoration Priorities
Global greenhouse emissions totaled about 43 Billion Tons in 2019. This blog shows that protecting Earth’s richest, most productive ecosystems has enormous ROI, keeps well over 1 Trillion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere in perpetuity, and radically reduces future emissions. Likewise, getting out of nature’s way and allowing forests to regrow could reduce global greenouse emissions from 43 billion tons a year to 32 Billion Tons a year, at net zero cost (Map #5). Most importantly though, protecting priority lands in the lowest cost locations could reduce today’s total greenhouse load by up to 49% (Map #7).
Still More Potential
So that’s enormous, but not even close to the total limit of potential carbon reductions from biospheric rescue and stewardship. Here are a few sketches of additional potential carbon reductions.
- Fixing Food. Drawdown.org showed in 2019 that converting our self-destructive food system into a regenerative food production system would absorb nearly 2/3rds of historical greenhouse emissions, and return a profit of nearly $8 Trillion over the next 30 years, with just $1.3 Trillion in start-up costs.
- Permanent Agriculture. As both a restoration science and a food-systems science, Permaculture provides principles-based expertise in many areas of biospherically beneficial self-sufficiency. On a societal scale, Geoff Lawton’s work implies — above a certain temperature, rich, self-managing ecosystems can be grown anywhere on Earth.
- Dietary Evolution. The research shows: We should all eat less meat. Meat-based diets are biggest hogs, most biospherically-destructive. Vegan, vegetarian, and fish diets can be regenerative.
- Urban Rewilding. There are so many things we need and must do to rebuild and integrate forests, vegetation, migration corridors, and other green infrastructure into the places we live and work. All of these add dramatically to the global carbon sink and biospheric continuation. I don’t know of any scientific estimates for the potential carbon sink, as of yet, but smaller-scale studies abound. And it’s essential for mental health.
- Ocean Farming. In waters, farming seaweed restores ocean life and moving seaweeds onto land can enrich and restore soils or be feed to cattle to reduce flatulence and create better quality meats. This scalable practice has enormous carbon and methane reduction potential. Also, increasing marine protected areas combined with a suite of other strategies, will increase the amount of life in the oceans; revitalize the ocean carbon sink.
- Large-scale Ecosystem Restoration. John D. Liu’s films document and educate on the world’s biggest ecosystem restoration successes.
- Waste Evolution. San Francisco did it. The Earth needs the world’s biological wastes. We must turn the pipe around, capture and utilize the variety of biological wastes Civilization creates as feedstock for protecting and strengthening the local food system, restoring reconnectingand buffering ecosystems, beautification, strengthening soils, creating new soil systems.
- Large Species Restoration. Then there’s rewilding. Focusing on protected area expansions that favor large species and “trophic pyramids” has enormous potential. For instance, asingle blue whale is worth roughly $2 Million in carbon credits.
We must prioritize where to invest. The most biospherically valuable systems benefit the whole planet the most. The total potential greenhouse gas reductions attainable from protecting and rebuilding our life-support system are greater than what’s needed to prevent 1.5C of global warming.
Imagine the total carbon reductions we can access by bringing vibrant, connected, diverse wildernesses back to our planet rebuilding our life-support system. We know basically what to protect and what each ecosystem’s capacities are. We can do a lot quickly.
Forest protection, regrowth, reforestation, soil restoration, evolving the human food system and our diets… This is not an exhaustive list, but it highlights how effective our top level biospheric priorities can be at stopping global warming through atmospheric carbon absorption.
What we’re looking at here, especially combining this potential with our rapidly decarbonizing global economy, is a new way of thinking about the future and a total carbon reduction promise for current, future, and historical emissions, which meets and exceeds the IPCC ultimatum on averting catastrophic climate change before 2030.
Let’s get moving.
- Science, re: the biophysical process claims made in this blog series, can be found in this draft of my forthcoming paper, “The Value of Biosphere Earth = all GDPs + all lives.”
Read the previous blog, “Regrowing a Beautiful Climate.”