ReWilding May be Vital, and Practical

October 15, 2020

New York Times:

The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined: Storms and wildfires are worsening while as many as one million species are at risk of extinction.

The solutions are not small or easy, but they exist, scientists say.

A global road map, published Wednesday in Nature, identifies a path to soaking up almost half of the carbon dioxide that has built up since the Industrial Revolution and averting more than 70 percent of the predicted animal and plant extinctions on land. The key? Returning a strategic 30 percent of the world’s farmlands to nature.

It could be done, the researchers found, while preserving an abundant food supply for people and while also staying within the time scale to keep global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius, the upper target of the Paris Agreement.

“It’s one of the most cost effective ways of combating climate change,” said Bernardo B.N. Strassburg, one of the study’s authors and an environmental scientist with Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the International Institute for Sustainability. “And it’s one of the most important ways of avoiding global extinctions.”

The researchers used a map from the European Space Agency that breaks down the surface of the planet into a grid of parcels classified by ecosystem: forests, wetlands, shrub lands, grasslands and arid regions. Using an algorithm they developed, the scientists evaluated which swaths, if returned to their natural states, would yield the highest returns for mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss at the lowest cost.

It was not enough simply to lay one result on top of the other. “If you really want to optimize for all three things at the same time,” Dr. Strassburg said, “that leads to a different map.”

A similar and complementary tool, The Global Safety Net, was released last month. It identifies the most strategic 50 percent of the planet to protect, filtering for rare species, high biodiversity, large mammal landscapes, intact wilderness and climate stabilization.

A growing number of campaigns seek to address the world’s environmental emergency by conserving or restoring vast swaths of the planet. The Bonn Challenge aims to restore 350 million hectares by 2030. The Campaign for Nature is pushing leaders to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

In the latest study, the scientists found that benefits rise and fall depending on how much land is restored.

Relinquishing 15 percent of strategic farmlands, for example, could spare 60 percent of extinctions and sequester about 30 percent of the built up carbon in the atmosphere. The authors estimate that at the global level, 55 percent of farmland could be returned to nature while maintaining current levels of food production by using existing agricultural land more effectively and sustainably.

“It’s really impressive,” said J. Leighton Reid, a specialist in ecological restoration at Virginia Tech who was not involved in the study. “The authors do a good job of acknowledging some of the limitations of the work at the same time as they’re proposing this big vision.”

The biggest challenges appear to be political will and finding the money to pay farmers to restore so much land to nature. But the authors point to the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars per year that subsidize fossil fuels and unsustainable farming practices.

“There’s a lot of money available for investment,” said Robin Chazdon, a longtime biologist with the University of Connecticut and one of the study’s authors. “The world is invested in destruction.”

Los Angeles Times:

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday to protect nearly a third of California’s land and coastal waters in his latest effort to fight climate change that he has blamed for recent record-breaking wildfires.

He directed state agencies to pursue actions that will use the state’s lands and waters to absorb climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere.

Newsom, who made the announcement in a walnut orchard 25 miles outside Sacramento, said innovative farming practices, wetlands restoration, better forest management, more tree-planting and more parks are all potential tools.

The goal is part of a larger global effort to protect 30% of Earth. California is the first state to join 38 countries that have made similar commitments, Newsom said.

5 Responses to “ReWilding May be Vital, and Practical”

  1. doldrom Says:

    … 55 percent of farmland could be returned to nature while maintaining current levels of food production by using existing agricultural land more effectively and sustainably

    One would think there would be every reason to attain this, even if there were no such thing as a CO² problem or a species holocaust.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Some of the farmland lost due to Mississippi River levee collapse would be a good start: Buy the land off the farmers and let it turn into marshland. It’s cheaper than rebuilding a lot of those levees, I’d bet.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Excellent idea, tricky but working at it.
    Relevant aside. Proposal here to de list 40 hectares of RAMSAR wetlands for a resort and marina. Words do not fail me (take your pick).

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I recommend the 2012 documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect. Along the Atlantic seaboard there are only small islands of greenland available for migrating birds. New York City’s Central Park represents a critical lifeline for many bird species.

    It’s a nice documentary, full of bird nuts and everything.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    “There’s a lot of money available for investment,”

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of worthy causes already arguing that they are entitled to that fossil fuel subsidy money.

    You certainly not going to get any consensus that this wilding concept should apply to American agriculture, as it is the most efficient in the world. What you could maybe do is mandate that the rims of American ag fields were allowed to go wild. Possibly mandate that a small percentage of fields have ponds added along migratory bird flyways.

    The sad fact is that globally, most environmental degradation is in the poorest nations. Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, for example, maybe the world’s most active emitters of CO2.

    Global CO2 Emissions

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