Jose Maria Ortiz l Palladium - Jun 24 2022
Planting Trees Cannot Be Our Only Solution for Climate Change

Jose Maria Ortiz, Palladium Managing Director

This piece was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News. 

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear: if we want to avoid the dangerous warming of our atmosphere and keep the world under 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must shift away from fossil fuels. Without immediate emissions reductions across all sectors, we’re on track to warm by 3.2 degrees – and to endure the catastrophic impacts that warming would bring.

Beyond a reduction of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, we must also preserve nature – the only short-term solution we currently have in the race to achieve net zero. Nature is our best bet until the technology for processes like carbon capture can catch up.

When we think about preserving nature, many of us envision planting trees, but this is an oversimplification of a much more complicated reality. While the world’s forests store about 861 gigatonnes of carbon (equivalent to nearly a century’s worth of our current annual fossil fuel emissions), these forests are vulnerable and dwindling due to rampant deforestation and the effects of climate change.

What we also need to be preserving are the many ecosystems that act as carbon sinks (those natural assets that absorb and store carbon) and keep emissions from leaking into our atmosphere in the first place. Of the many ecosystems on the planet, it is wetlands, not forests, that store the most tonnes of carbon per hectare – ahead of grasslands, tropical savannas, and croplands.

So, if not by planting trees, how do we preserve the ecosystems – like wetlands – that we need most?

The answer is by making it financially attractive for investors and businesses to preserve them, and by engaging the communities that live in and around these ecosystems in a way that benefits them and future generations.

There is monetary value in preserving nature on land and in the sea, and it isn’t just through carbon business models (such as the sale of carbon credits). It can be through a combination of revenue streams that include carbon, biodiversity, and other ecosystems services. There are carbon-free businesses like non-timber forest products, sustainable forestry, the increasingly trendy eco-tourism, energy production, and other sustainable value chains that can mean both profit and preservation.

But many see our natural ecosystems through a stark dichotomy, believing that they should remain entirely untouched. This unnecessarily pits those looking for solutions to climate change against the communities who depend on these ecosystems for their lives and livelihoods. Instead, I believe there’s a way to split the difference – to preserve nature while sustainably using natural assets in a way that benefits the ecosystem itself, investors, and the community that calls it home.

These long-term, sustainable solutions and business models exist. From Colombia to Ghana, the UK, and Indonesia, I’ve seen first-hand how it’s possible to invest in economic models that can work across ecosystems and create lucrative returns.

These interventions are complex and require critical collaboration with local communities, not only so that they will lend their support, but to ensure that they reap the benefits.

In Australia, for example, the government is investing AUD 3 billion in the Reef 2050 Plan, which will support a Reef Credit Scheme that will quantify the work landholders undertake to reduce pollutants entering the reef without compromising the productivity of their land. The hope is that the scheme will create a new environmental market where supply and demand will drive investment into improving and protecting the water quality of the reef, with profitable returns for producers.

These producers, many of whom are farmers and livestock suppliers, will have the opportunity to improve their practices to launch products like carbon-free beef (as Coles, one of the biggest supermarket chains in Australia, has done). Again, it is not about stopping beef production, but doing it better while preserving and restoring nature.

In Colombia, we’re piloting the first ever “habitat bank” – private conservation and restoration sites that generate biodiversity credits, which can be sold to project developers to offset major infrastructure impacts with investments in conservation. For every 500 hectares of habitat bank established, at least 24 new jobs are created through conservation and restoration activities. In addition, these banks protect land for 30 years under contracts with landowners and allows the development of complementary business in the natural tourism space, apiculture, and other non-timber forest products.

And while these and other examples indicate that there is progress being made, it’s not enough. We need more projects, and quickly, that preserve and restore ecosystems to act as carbon sinks.

Sustainable commodities, nature-based business models, access to energy, and sustainable tourism can all ensure the livelihoods of communities, while preserving nature at the same time. But only if we properly support them and put them forth as a clear solution for tackling climate change and meeting global policies and goals.

The IPCC says it’s ‘now or never’ to move towards a low-carbon economy. I say, now more than ever, that we must make bold investments in nature to compensate for our inability to phase out fossil fuels quickly enough. We don’t have time for small-scale interventions. It’s time to take risks, because the alternative is clear – increasing temperatures with devastating effects for us all.

For more information, contact or download The Catalyst Special Report: Forests