The next time you’re in the grocery store and pick up your favorite snack food, turn the box over and look for “palm oil” in the ingredients list. A growing market for palm oil — and animal protein — is responsible for one of the largest contributors to climate change.
Thousands of acres of land are being stripped of rainforests and converted to palm oil and animal farms each and every year. From Indonesia to Brazil to Columbia, a massive loss of rainforest due to the sudden rise in palm oil can be traced to American consumption—palm oil has increased tenfold in our diet over the past decade as a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of choice for snack food makers. The rise of a middle class globally has fueled a climb in eating meat, a double whammy since livestock release tons of methane, a potent, heat-trapping gas.
The power of the purse could send a broad signal to Asian Pacific and South American countries that consumers in countries like the United States place value on protecting the world’s rainforests.
Beyond a general feel good campaign, a new report calculates how much forests provide in protecting the planet at large. Besides slowing the Houstons, Floridas, Puerto Ricos, U.S. Virgin Islands and more multi-billion dollar disasters, carbon emissions will be drastically curtailed by adopting an ecological restoration economy.
“Nature could cost-effectively deliver over a third of greenhouse gas emissions reductions required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming,” a peer-reviewed study published by The Nature Conservancy concluded. “This is equivalent to a complete stop to the burning of oil, worldwide.”
Accounting for cost constraints, the researchers calculate that natural climate solutions could reduce global warming from carbon emissions by 11.3 billion tonnes per year by 2030. That number is the equivalent to halting the burning of oil.
Action step one—plant trees. Restoring forests on formerly forested lands, and avoiding further loss of global forests, are the two largest opportunities. Success depends in large part on better forestry and agricultural practices, particularly those that reduce the amount of land used by livestock.
Following this path will provide 37% of the emissions reductions needed to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030.
Supporting parks, tree planting, and land conservation efforts could mitigate the greatest threat in our lifetime. That’s the position of The Nature Conservancy’s Executive Director, Mark Tercek, who addressed the need for more green infrastructure in cities like Cleveland during his keynote at the 2017 Sustainability Summit.
“Cities need nature,” said Tercek, who spoke of TNC’s urban greening initiative. “It can solve many problems. Also, nature needs cities—and to work where people live.”
TNC sees its green infrastructure program in D.C. as a model for other cities. D.C. requires every development to capture 100% of its stormwater through green infrastructure. Developers can buy and sell credits to pay for off-site greening (i.e. if there isn’t space on site to plant enough trees, they can buy credits from a tree planting project in the city). TNC is investing in the program because its a steady revenue stream focused on increasing green space and tree cover.
Likewise, Cleveland has a tree canopy crisis that could use an innovative public-private partnership like D.C.’s
The 2015 Cleveland Tree Plan identified the worst hit areas where the city has lost 100,000 trees in the last century, and set a goal to dramatically increase the tree cover in the city.
“Trees have so much value in ecological service,” Cleveland Chief of Sustainability, Matt Grey, said during the Summit. Grey spoke of Mayor Jackson’s goal to increase tree canopy in Cleveland from 19% to 30% by 2040. “As an early down payment, 50,000 trees will be planted in the city by 2020.”
The city is signed on to a couple of major initiatives focused on green infrastructure. The Climate Smart Cities initiative will help identify “how best to connect green spaces and cool down and protect against severe weather,” Grey said, “and where best to absorb rainwater and protect our lake.”
In addition, Cleveland and 200 cities joined forces to oppose the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the global climate pact signed in Paris. Greening at the neighborhood level is a major focus, Grey said, of the city’s upcoming Climate Action Plan update. The idea is to find solutions that protect the most vulnerable citizens while reducing carbon emissions.
“Which residents are most vulnerable to heat waves, extreme cold and floods and how prioritize actions to protect them and generate green jobs,” Grey said about the CAP update.
Tying Cleveland’s reforesting the Forest City plan into a global effort to reforest formerly forested lands now has solid scientific ground from which to act.
“This study is the first attempt to estimate systematically the amount of carbon that might be sequestered from the atmosphere by various actions in forestry and agriculture, and by the preservation of natural lands which store carbon very efficiently,” said Dr. William H. Schlesinger, Professor Emeritus of Biogeochemistry and former president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “The results are provocative: first, because of the magnitude of potential carbon sequestration from nature, and second, because we need natural climate solutions in tandem with rapid fossil fuel emissions cuts to beat climate change.”