Briefing Note 4 – How Can We Achieve Net Zero on a Flourishing Planet?
How Will Greenhouse Gas Removal Solutions Affect Nature and Society?
Nature based solutions (NbS) such as afforestation and reforestation, and wetland restoration is predicted to have mostly positive or neutral impacts across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, there are potential trade-offs in relation to food security and economic growth, where forestry/wetland may compete with agriculture for land resources.
Biochar is found to have mostly positive implications for the SDGs, although how and where the biomass used to produce biochar is crucial. In some regions it may increase agricultural yields when added to soils, whereas it may have no impact in others. Equally, in some regions enhanced weathering of silicate rocks can improve food production, but could have negative impacts on water systems, depending on the mineral.
Soil carbon sequestration has the most positive implications for nature and society; increasing yields, supporting freshwater systems and sustaining economic activity associated with croplands.
Bioenergy with carbon capture storage (BECCS) has mixed impacts, which indicates the need for integrating bioenergy crop production into sustainably managed landscapes to mitigate impacts on food security and biodiversity. Although the social and environmental impacts of many solutions remain uncertain, there are a number of ‘no regret’ options, which should be pursued with urgency.
What Are The Implications of Net Zero for Land Use?
Land is a crucial resource for achieving net zero, with 23% of global emissions being associated with land use. Given the need to produce food for a population of 9 billion people while recovering biodiversity and protecting vulnerable species, solutions that demand large land allocations may be problematic.
This means that GHG removal technologies need to be implemented with great care. In order to reduce the pressures currently placed on land, actions such as reducing food waste, dietary change and the use of natural materials in industry and construction play an important role.
Nature based solutions involve working with and enhancing nature to address societal goals. They can also play a vital role in achieving net zero provided they support biodiversity and are implemented through local stewardships. Current climate change policy and pathways to net zero favour single species tree plantations. However, such approaches are bad for biodiversity, compromise adaptation to climate change, and low diversity plantations have low resilience to climate extremes and new pathogens.
The greatest opportunities for NbS are protecting and restoring biodiverse ecosystems, especially in the tropics, as there is robust evidence from both science and practice that such ecosystems protect us from the worse impacts of climate change and can enhance socio-ecological resilience.
However, these types of solutions can be viewed as vulnerable to climate change impacts, e.g. through increased frequency and intensity of fires. This is one of the key reasons that decarbonsing the economy remains the priotity – i.e. NbS are not an alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and should not be used to offset emissions.
Transition or Transformation? The Politics of Net Zero
The social and political implications of net zero were explored and included the questions of what is desirable, for whom, and who decides.
It is also important to include and incorporate different perspectives of gender, class and the Global South. The word ‘transition’ is commonly used in climate policy discourse, and is also often associated with techno-economic pathways for achieving emissions reductions. In emphasising the scale of change required to achieve net zero, transformations are needed across political and economic systems, social structures and cultural norms.
Not only does net zero demand new kinds of participatory politics and disruptive business models; the fundamental relationship between nature and society may need to be reimagined in order to generate more sustainable futures.
When considering what constitutes a flourishing a planet, rich, diverse and resilient ecosystems go hand in hand with thriving societies. As part of these alternative visions of the future, the artificial separation of society from nature needs to be questioned.
What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?
Although some social and environmental impacts of many solutions remain uncertain, enough is known about a number of options that means that they should be pursued with urgency
Nature based solutions can compliment technological innovation for reducing emissions
Achieving net zero should not rely on techno-economic pathways, but should also include different perspectives of gender, class, social structures and cultural norms
Nature based solutions are not an alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground but should be implemented in tandem with decarbonisation for the whole suite of vital ecosystem services that support sustainable development