Robert Repetto is a Senior Fellow of the Energy Future Coalition. The following article represents his personal views and not those of the organization.
The Green Climate Fund was established to help developing countries deal with climate change by contributing to their mitigation and adaptation measures. The GCF was supposed to be the main fund for global climate change finance, as part of the commitment by richer countries to mobilize $100 billion a year in investment resources by 2020. With three years left till 2020, the funding pledged to the GCF has reached only $10.6 billion, and actual disbursements are less than $3 billion.[i]
A fundamental problem in raising the money is that investments to adapt to climate change in highly vulnerable developing countries benefit mainly those adapting countries, not the countries providing funds.
Investments in mitigation (i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions) are quite different. Since reducing emissions anywhere helps everyone everywhere, donor countries share equally in the benefits of these investments. So far, the GCF has funded some mitigation and some adaptation projects. Typically, aid-financed projects focus on one or the other.[ii]
There’s a much larger opportunity here to make highly economic investments that provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits at the same time. Operations to increase the amount of carbon stored in soils are a prime example. Soils hold more carbon than the atmosphere and biosphere combined, but that storehouse is being rapidly depleted. Almost half of the world’s soils have been degraded by unsustainable farming, grazing and forestry practices, and their productivity has fallen as a result. In the world’s breadbaskets, such as the rich soils of Ukraine, the cost of soil carbon losses already amounts to a third of farm income.[iii] Agriculture now contributes about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, much of that from depletion of soil carbon.[iv] Through restoration, huge amounts of carbon can be stored in soils rather than remaining in the atmosphere and contributing to warming.
Soil restoration and conservation are also key steps in adapting to climate change, especially in poorer countries. Restoring soil carbon protects agriculture from drought, excessive heat and other effects of climate change. Soils depleted of organic matter become infertile: lacking nutrients, unable to retain water, deprived of soil organisms and vulnerable to erosion. Reversing these ongoing losses is crucial to sustain farm incomes and ensure adequate food supplies for a future world population of 9 billion people or more.
Unfortunately, this synergy can also work the other way: Higher temperatures increase the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, which in turn increases the rate of global warming. A warmer atmosphere also leads to more frequent intense rainstorms, washing away even more carbon-rich topsoil.
The deterioration of soils can be reversed and the carbon cycle, now out of balance, can be shifted. Even a reduction in soil carbon losses of only a few percent can offset a substantial share of the annual emissions from other human activities.[v] How this can be accomplished is well-known and already practiced, but at a totally inadequate scale: on farmlands, minimum tillage, retention of crop residues in the field; cover crops in the fallow season, preferably nitrogen-fixing; contour plowing and vegetative strips on sloping fields and water control to reduce erosion; trees, shrubs, and even hardy grasses on steeper slopes; on pasture lands, appropriate stocking levels and better range management; re-vegetation of watersheds, wastelands, degraded areas and other deforested areas.[vi] These improved practices not only provide mitigation and adaptation benefits; they’re also profitable investments for farmers, paying off in higher productivity and better harvests.
Nonetheless, changing agricultural practices is slow work, especially among risk-averse and poorly informed farmers and herders. Because such changes potentially involve hundreds of millions of farmers and because measuring achievement is difficult, top-down strategies such as cap-and-trade or offset regimes are not appropriate. Making a difference requires boots on the ground to work with farmers’ and herders’ groups; to train and expand extension services; to provide small-scale credit facilities; and to improve land tenure or farmer incentive systems where necessary.
This is not rocket science, which is part of the problem. Funders prefer to search for silver bullets – transformative new technologies that will provide the solution to the climate problem. They have less enthusiasm for long-term commitments that involve institution building and intensive work with local organizations. Scaling up is a ground operation, and we’ve literally been losing ground.
Programs have been started to capture this opportunity but should be massively expanded. For example, France has initiated the “4 per 1000” Initiative,[vii] named for the fact that a 0.4 percent annual increase in soil carbon sequestration globally would fully offset the projected increase in other carbon emissions. The Global Environment Facility, an international funding vehicle for climate finance, and its partners have financed projects in many countries to conserve and rebuild soil carbon, allocating $324 million to sustainable land management between 2010 and 2014. But even this scale, priority and level of financial resources are far from adequate.
An even more spectacular opportunity beckons along the world’s coasts. On a per-acre or per-hectare basis, 10 times more carbon is stored in wetlands, marshes, mangrove forests and sea grass than in tropical forests, and the rate at which carbon accumulates in them is at least 50 times faster. Yet these coastal resources are also being lost worldwide at almost 20 percent per decade.[viii]
This coastal vegetation buffers the shoreline against tropical storms, storm surges, peak tides, and flooding, significantly reducing risks to on-shore property and infrastructure. This is a crucial adaptation opportunity because the value of shoreline property continues to increase even in the face of rising risks. Protecting and restoring this “blue carbon” is a highly effective way of simultaneously mitigating global warming and adapting to it, and is profitable, too. Marshes, mangroves, kelp and sea grass beds provide nurseries and habitat for fish and other seafood and for ducks, geese and migratory birds. They improve water quality. In poorer countries, they offer harvestable products; in richer countries, they also provide recreational opportunities for boaters, hunters and fishermen. This can all add up to a value over $100,000 per square kilometer.[ix] Here, too, successful projects have shown how restoration can be done.
Taking advantage of these great opportunities is more important than ever, when there’s so little time left to avoid the most serious damages from climate change. Rather than a bottom-up, scattered process of project selection, international climate financing programs such as the Green Climate Fund should adopt a strong, consistent focus on these great opportunities to capture synergies between mitigation and adaptation. This implies building on successful models and scaling them up widely, committing to capacity building directly and with partners, and allocating much larger financial resources to the effort. Such a commitment deserves more enthusiastic financial support from wealthy nations, who will share in the climate benefits, as will we all.
[i] Green Climate Fund, Status of Pledges and Contributions made to the Green Climate Fund. Nov. 4, 2016. https://www.greenclimate.fund/documents/20182/24868/Status_of_Pledges.pdf/eef538d3-2987-4659-8c7c-5566ed6afd19.
[ii] Nordic Council of Ministers, Scoping Study on Financing Adaptation-Mitigation Synergy Activities. Oslo, 2013.
[iii] FAO Investment Centre, Ukraine: Soil fertility to strengthen climate resilience. 2014. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/755621468319486733/pdf/918500WP0UKRAI0E0Box385344B00OUO090.pdf
[iv] Smith, P. Soils and climate change. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sust. 4, 539–544 (2012). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343512000711.
[v] Changing farm practices can also reduce agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, two other powerful greenhouse gases.
[vi] Steenwerth et al., Climate-Smart Agriculture: Global Research Agenda: Scientific Basis for Action. Agriculture & Food Security 2014, 3:11. http://www.agricultureandfoodsecurity.com/content/3/1/11.
[viii] Capturing and Conserving Natural Coastal Carbon: Building mitigation, advancing adaptation. 2010. World Bank, IUCN, ESA PWA. November 2010. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTCMM/Resources/coastal_booklet_final_nospread11-23-10.pdf.
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