The Value of Biosphere Earth, pt. 7: Carbon
If we maximize Biosphere Earth’s wellbeing on land today, we should be well out of the climate crisis within 10 to 30 years.
How much carbon can our life-support system consume? And, can it consume it fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change?
The answers are: “more than enough,” and “yes.” Here is a two-slide synopsis of this week’s science:
Biosphere Earth, the composition of Earth’s life and living ecosystems which provides humanity’s life-support services, has the greatest potential of any known resource to absorb carbon, stabilize our weather, and reverse climate change this decade. The following paragraphs summarize four studies on the largest aspects of our life-support system’s greenhouse gas reduction capacity.
Terminology. “1 GtCO2e” = one Gigaton (one billion metric tons) of Carbon Dioxide emissions and/or Carbon Dioxide equivalents.
Synopsis. The human economy needs to remove 730 Gt CO2e from the atmosphere by 2100.[i] Forests, wetlands, peatlands, better agriculture, and eating less meat can remove at least 630 Gt CO2e in that time frame and reduce global emissions by as much as 37.22 Gt CO2e per year by 2030. [ii] If the human economy maximizes Biosphere Earth’s wellbeing on lands today, it should be well out of the climate crisis within 10 to 30 years.
Global Carbon Budget. ”We have a Solution.” To avoid catastrophic climate change this decade humanity must reduce global greenhouse emissions by 28 GtCO2e per year by 2030 and approximately 53 GtCO2e per year by 2050.[i] Protection and regrowth of Earth’s most vital land ecosystems and healthier agricultural and dietary practices can remove up to 37.22 GtCO2e per year by 2030 and a similar amount to 2050. These removals exceed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s mandatory carbon reductions by 133% this decade and can provide up to 70% of total carbon reductions required to achieve net zero by 2050. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change further recommends removing roughly 730 billion metric tons of Carbon Dioxide equivalents from the atmosphere by the end of this century.[ii] The biospherically regenerative strategies summarized in this brief can remove at least 630 billion metric tons before this century’s end, roughly 86% of the total CO2e reductions needed.[iii]
How Fast? Strassburg, et al (2020), tells us that Biosphere Earth offers an atmospheric CO2e removal rate of up to 50% of total potential within the first 20 years of ecosystem reestablishment and 90% of total potential within 66 years.[iv] Therefore the strategies cited in this brief, if implemented at full bore in 2022, would achieve 50% of their total carbon reduction potential by 2042 and 90% by 2088. Numerous additional biospheric carbon removal strategies are also possible. With additional strategies implemented, Biosphere Earth just might have the capacity to absorb all CO2e emissions needed to avoid and reverse catastrophic climate change this century. See “Additional Drawdown Opportunities” below for a short list of other strategies. Implementation of biospheric carbon removal strategies requires Indigenous ecological knowledge, financial support, cross-sector partnerships, ecosystem and community nurturing, and “getting out of the way” of natural regrowth.
Here is a 4 slide synopsis of the “Carbon Reductions Report” below:
Carbon Reductions Report. This brief highlights four recent assessments of Biosphere Earth’s carbon reduction capacity (shown in the graphical synopsis above).
- Graphic 1: “The Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests.” If carried out as it was committed to at COP26, November 2021, The Glasgow Declaration on Forests would reduce global greenhouse emissions by up to 7.45 Gt CO2 per year by 2030.[v] If -28 Gt CO2e/year is our goal, then the Glasgow accord’s successful enactment achieves 26.6% of that goal.
- Graphic 2: The study, “Global Priority Areas for Ecosystem Restoration,” highlights highest priority lands for rapid carbon absorption and greatest biodiversity protection at lowest cost. This study includes roughly similar geography to the Glasgow accord and shows that protecting and restoring the most biodiverse and carbon-rich land ecosystems would avoid and absorb up to 418.5 Gt CO2e this century if current lands are protected and 30% of most degraded lands are restored, 631.8 Gt CO2e if 45% of such lands are restored, while saving more than 70% of today’s most threatened species from extinction.[vi]
- Graphic 3: “Global Natural Forest Regrowth” covers a larger area for forest restoration and shows that just allowing trees to grow back naturally on today’s deforested lands has the potential to remove up to 23% of annual emissions, roughly 8.9 Gt CO2e per year.[vii]
- Graphic 4: “Contribution of Lands to a 1.5C World” shows up to 29.77 Gt CO2e removals per year through better quality livestock feed, rice cultivation, soil carbon sequestration, and reduced food waste and meat consumption.[viii] The first three studies noted here overlap in various ways and thus do not tally. Instead, they reenforce the viability of land-based, carbon emissions reduction when prioritizing high productivity / high biodiversity ecosystems. The -37 GtCO2e per year by 2030 tally shown as the headline graphic at the top of this brief sums the Glasgow Declaration’s potential with that of the agricultural and dietary change aspects identified in the fourth study, “Contribution of Lands to a 1.5C World.”
Read a brief explanation of the math here.
Additional Drawdown Opportunities. In addition to the studies summarized above, biospherically-regenerative CO2e drawdown can be obtained through numerous other life-support system rescue and restoration strategies.
- Notably: phytoplankton restoration, fisheries restoration, agricultural intensification, rewilding large mammal ranges, composting at municipal scale to strengthen soil vitality and resilience, urban integration of permaculture-based food production, urban integration of forests, green infrastructure and wildlife corridors, and ocean farming that harvests seaweed as a primary nutrient for livestock and soils.
These strategies for biospheric carbon absorption are not as well documented as forests, soils, and agriculture, but they offer tremendous additional potential carbon emissions reduction. It is also worth noting that forest carbon retention capacity typically increases with maturity.
Prioritization is Paramount. Biospheric collapse and catastrophic climate change are occurring now. Humanity needs to reduce greenhouse emissions to net zero, save biodiversity, and restore global life-support system integrity as fast as possible. Rescuing and restoring Earth’s land ecosystem integrity and advancing global agricultural and dietary practices so they are less self-destructive not only offers more than enough emissions reduction potential to win the climate challenge it saves biodiversity and biosphere and enhances global climate system security in ways technology cannot.
The previous two segments (five and six) in this series provided an overview of how protecting and rescuing land ecosystems is essential to maintaining more than 15 temperate climate system services, such global cooling. It is also important to note that biospheric, climate, and human economic values tend to group together in ecosystems.
Here are some maps of global significance:
A recent study (the last map, above) shows that protecting 50% of Earth’s highest value lands can secure 79% of vertebrate and plant species, +85% of land-stored carbon, and +89% of clean water production resources.[x] Biodiversity, climate stabilization, carbon wealth, freshwater production, and globally-relevant ecosystem services are concentrated in specific ecosystems on lands, so protecting these lands offers multiple co-benefits.[xi] By comparison, today’s carbon emissions reduction technologies eliminate CO2e emissions but offer no immediate biodiversity or climate system benefits and typically cause environmental destruction in their manufacture and disposal. Biospheric carbon absorption rapidly absorbs carbon and securitizes essential climate and life-support system services for humanity’s continuation. The best global climate solution is a biosphere-first path.
Thanks for reading.
This piece was updated on 12/9/21 and 12/28/21.
Contact me anytime with questions.
Read about the math in this essay.
Other Content in this Series
- “Why” this series: 5-minute podcast
- 1: How old is Life? How old are Humans?
podcast, essay, science
- 2: What’s the most intelligent thing in the Universe?
podcast, essay, science
- 3: What’s the most valuable thing we have?
podcast, essay, science
- 4: How does Earth compare to all other planets?
- 5: Vegetation Controls Climate— Local
- 6: Vegetation Controls Climate— Global
- 7: Carbon