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Nature-based climate solutions explained

Addressing climate change may take every tool we have available, including the tools designed by nature to scrub carbon dioxide from the air and filter pollutants from the water.

William Anderegg, director of the University of Utah's Wilkes Center for Climate and Policy, recently joined with nearly 30 coauthors on a report detailing a roadmap to develop such nature-based climate solutions. These include things like planting forests, restoring wetlands or climate-smart agriculture that, through natural processes, reduces atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Nature-based climate solutions should be employed alongside other broad-reducing solutions, the report says, and should be guided by the best available science. That's the trick, however, as there are still some gaps in our knowledge about how to best implement nature-based solutions. So Anderegg and his colleagues are calling for a $1 billion investment in a national information network that would link together the myriad research projects connected to nature-based climate solutions.

We spoke with Anderegg about how natural solutions can join the fight against climate change.

What are nature-based climate solutions, and what advantages do they have over other solutions to climate change?

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PHOTO CREDIT: David Pace, advancement coordinator, School of Biological Sciences

William Anderegg, director, Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy.

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Nature-based climate solutions are human actions that leverage natural ecosystems to slow climate change by either reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it. One of the main advantages of nature-based climate solutions is that they frequently bring a large number of co-benefits through things like cleaner water, crop pollination and wildlife habitat.

What limitations do nature-based climate solutions have in comparison to other approaches?

Nature-based climate solutions have certain challenges compared to other climate solutions. In particular, these solutions need to lead to clear additional climate benefits beyond what would have happened in a baseline scenario and they also need to store carbon for long periods of time (often called permanence or durability). If you protect a forest in a given area, but a wildfire then burns that forest to the ground a few years later, sending that carbon into the atmosphere, you haven’t done much for the climate.

How can more scientific research help make nature-based climate solutions effective?

Scientific research plays a fundamental role in making nature-based climate solutions effective and scalable. In particular, we need a lot more research that helps monitor carbon in forests and soils, research that quantifies the climate risks to forest and soil carbon, as well as publicly available maps and tools to inform, guide, prioritize and evaluate these efforts.

What kind of research investment is the white paper calling for, and from whom?

This white paper identifies key knowledge gaps and provides a roadmap for actionable, cross-sector information to foster nature-based climate solution strategies that work and to avoid dedicating resources and attention to those that do not. In particular, it calls for coordinated investment in a national nature-based climate solution “Information Network,” organized around strategic leveraging of existing research infrastructure. This investment likely needs to come from a broad range of entities in the public sector (federal and state agencies) and private sector (e.g. corporations, non-governmental organizations and foundations).

What is the Wilkes Center doing to aid the development of nature-based climate solutions?

The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy is actively producing cutting-edge research to help map the benefits and risks to nature-based climate solutions. For example, we recently produced a study and a tool that lets stakeholders view different risks to forests as nature-based climate solutions globally over the 21st century.

Read the report, “The science needed for robust, scalable, and credible nature-based climate solutions for the United States," here.