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Forests can’t handle all the net-zero emissions plans – companies and countries expect nature to offset too much carbon
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Forests can’t handle all the net-zero emissions plans – companies and countries expect nature to offset too much carbon


Promising net-zero carbon emissions to protect the climate are fast and furious. companies. cities and countries. But declaring a net-zero target doesn’t mean they plan to stop their greenhouse gas emissions entirely – far from it. Many of these pledges depend heavily on planting trees and protecting forests to absorb some of their greenhouse gas emissions.

Two questions arise: Can nature meet the expectations? It should be expected to do so, but that is a more important question.

We have been involved in international negotiations on climate change land and forest climate researchfor many years. These questions are not being answered by research and pledges made by companies to date.

What is net-zero?

Net-zero is when all carbon dioxide still released by human activities such as driving gasoline-powered cars or running fossil fuel-powered power plants, is equalized by the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since the beginning of time does not yet have technologiesThe ability to remove carbon dioxide from the air at any climate-relevant level, which means that we can rely on nature for carbon dioxide removal.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC), global carbon dioxide emissions must reach a certain level. net-zero by at least midcenturyThe world must have even a slight chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) if it is to be a part of the Goal of the Paris climate agreementTo avoid the worst consequences of climate change

The devil in net zero lies in its apparent simplicity.

Nature’s potential and its limits

Climate change is driven largely by cumulative emissions – carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere and stays there for hundreds to thousands of years, trapping heat near Earth’s surface.

The ability of nature to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it within the biosphere (such as soils, grasslands and trees) has attracted a lot of attention. via photosynthesis. It is also a major source of carbon dioxide from deforestation, ecosystem degradation, and agricultural practices. The right land management practices can reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase carbon storage if they are done correctly.

Net-zero proposals rely on the ability to find ways to make these systems absorb more carbon.

Researchers estimate that nature might annually be able to remove5 gigatons carbon dioxide can be eliminated from the atmosphere. You can also avoid 5 gigatons by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture, deforestation, and other sources.

This 10-gigaton figure has regularly been cited as “one-third of the global effort needed to stop climate change,” but that’s misleading. Both avoided emissions and removed emissions are not additive.

A new forests and land-use declarationThe UN climate conference in November also highlighted the ongoing challengesIn reducing deforestation emissions to zero, including illegal logging and protecting the rights Indigenous peoples.

Stored carbon doesn’t stay there forever

It would take time to reach the point where nature can remove 5 gigatons each year. And there’s another problem: High levels of removal might last for only a decade or so.

The storage potential for carbon dioxide increases with the restoration of ecosystems and trees. This can happen over many decades. As ecosystems become more saturated, this storage potential decreases over time. This means that large-scale carbon dioxide reduction by natural ecosystems is possible. one-off opportunity to restore lost carbon stocks.

Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere – in forests and other ecosystems – doesn’t stay there forever, either. Sometimes trees and plants are killed by the environment. climate-related wildfiresDroughts, warming, and fields are tilled release carbon.

When taking these factors into consideration – the delay while nature-based removals scale up, saturation and the one-off and reversible nature of enhanced terrestrial carbon storage – another team of researchers found that restoration of forest and agricultural ecosystems could be expected to remove only about 3.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually.

Global average temperature could be reduced by ecosystem restoration over the next century approximately 0.12 C (0.2 F). However, the magnitude of the removals that the world can expect from ecosystem rehabilitation will not occur in time to reduce the temperature rise expected within the next 20 decades.

Nature in net-zero pledges

Net-zero pledges do not provide much information about the relative contributions of emissions reductions and dependence on removals. However, there are some indications as to the extent of removals that the major actors expect to be able to use.

ActionAid reviewedThe oil major Shell’s net-zerostrategy and found that it involves reducing 120 million tons per year by planting forests. This will require approximately 29.5million acres (12 million ha) of land. That’s roughly 45,000 square miles.

Oxfam reviewed the net-zero pledges for Shell and three other oil and gas producers – BP, TotalEnergies and ENI – and concluded that “their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the U.K. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.”

These numbers offer insight into the way these companies, and possibly many others, see net-zero.

Research shows that net-zero strategies that rely only on temporary removals to balance permanent emission will fail. Temporary storage of nature-based emissions, limited land availability, and the time it takes to scale up means that they are not a crucial part of the overall sustainability strategy. stabilizing the earth systemThey cannot offset the continued emission of fossil fuels.

This means that to get to net-zero, you will need to reduce emissions quickly and dramatically. Nature will be required to balance what is left, mainly from land and agriculture, but cannot balance ongoing fossil emissions.

To reach net-zero, you will need to reduce emissions as close as possible.

COP26: the world’s biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage of COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here to help you understand the climate news and stories. Read more of our U.S.And global coverage.

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