Why nature-based solutions are essential in the carbon market

Article written by Eero Wahlstedt, Co-Founder and Managing Director of SoilWatch, and is reproduced with permission.

Having closely followed the criticisms and public scandals of voluntary carbon markets, especially concerning nature-based solutions (NbS), it is difficult not to feel torn. We’ve been advocating for NbS and the incredible co-benefits that they bring since starting SoilWatch three years ago with the mission to support the scaling of high quality and evidence-driven NbS projects in the developing world. Recent critiques, for instance in The Guardian, highlight pressing and real concerns, and while many resonate with our experiences, there are concerning suggestions made on the basis of them.

Understanding the issues and challenges
There have been many issues with how NbS projects are conceptualised, verified, and implemented. From poor baselines and questionable counterfactual scenarios that can lead to inflated carbon claims to overlooked local populations and human impacts that have contributed even to human rights abuses, many challenges persist. These critiques are valid, even if there remain questions about project selection and what methodologies were used – Verra is preparing a full response along with some project implementers. The drive for profit has at times eclipsed genuine impact, with opaque measurement and certification systems exacerbating these issues. False carbon claims can cause harm to the climate and undermine efforts to avert wider catastrophes, so addressing these issues is vital.

At SoilWatch, we’ve worked with several organisations to address these problems. Our mission focusses on transparent, science-based Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) that thoroughly showcases the socio-economic and environmental impacts of projects, inviting scrutiny and replication. The issues in the space are in the end mostly problems of a lack of transparency. Buyers do not generally want to support bad projects that have zero impacts – they would not pay money to be on the front pages of scandal reporting. It is the responsibility of the carbon markets to provide evidenced high-quality projects for purchase.

From permanence to sustainability: re-framing the debate
A recent recurrent critique addresses the “permanence” of carbon sequestration through nature-based solutions, suggesting they might not be as durable as technological alternatives. For instance, Carbon Market Watch has expressed concerns that the long-term permanence of carbon stored in forests or soils cannot be assured, considering potential human disruptions such as logging or sustained extractive agriculture, and natural calamities such as pests, fires, diseases, etc. This perspective quickly ends up advocating the prioritisation of permanent storage methods, often technological in nature. Such viewpoints often perceive natural storage as more temporary, hinting at potential implications for future generations. Yet, this raises the question: what exactly do we mean by permanent?

Proponents often mention permanence of 100 to 10,000 years. Even the extreme end is not permanent, just more durable. The term permanence in itself is misleading to lay followers. And more durable than what? A 30-year nature-based project? Let’s look deeper into this. When it comes to climate science, and relevant durability in preventing catastrophic climate change, the relevant figures are 7 and 27, the years remaining to 2030 and 2050. Preventing 1 tonne of CO2 being emitted or removing 1 tonne of CO2 today is more valuable to the climate than doing so in 5 or 10 years time. This means there’s a large present value to what can be done now.

The debate needs to go well beyond questions of durability. As we need to move quickly to avert catastrophic conditions, one key question is what can be done now and scaled quickly? What can be done with lower costs (given carbon markets are far from providing massive funding at this stage)? Like with any products, its expected lifespan and risks of reversals must be factored in. There are also established and accepted scientific tools, from buffer pools to risk assessment methods, that can help factor in the potential risks, including nature-based solutions. There is room to improve them and ensure they are transparently communicated for pricing.

The capacity of soils to retain carbon for the timespans relevant for our most acute needs is not in question – arid soils where needs are highest can retain it for 396 ± 339 years (topsoil) and 963 ± 669 years (subsoil). Our main concern should be the existing unsustainable paradigms of land use and food production (such as sustained monocropping, clearing forest and pasture for cropland, reduced fallow periods, etc.), responsible for significant carbon emissions (estimated third of human-made emissions) and ecosystem degradation.

This dynamic traps countless communities in vicious cycles of poor yields and food insecurity, further creating pressures to extract further from nature, emitting further carbon, disrupting soil fertility and the water cycle, and deteriorating local ecosystems. Gedaref in Sudan is a prime example, where yields [linked to monocropping] have deteriorated 70% over a generation, which means poor people have to cultivate even more land to maintain basic production. Along with climate change, the end result of this in many of the contexts we work in will be the desertification of massive landscapes and the loss of viability for all the communities living within them. This destructive paradigm is highly resilient to change as it is rooted in socio-economic structures, governance arrangements, and normative frameworks. Great efforts and investments are needed to change it, and neither the issue of poverty nor the issue of degrading environment can be tackled without the other.

Nature-based solutions are the only transformative route available, harmonising human activities with nature and fostering sustainable rural development, biodiversity conservation, and peace-building.

Issues of poverty, issues of climate, and issues of ecosystems simply have to be tackled together, not separately. To prioritise “permanent” solutions like Direct Air Capture, which treats carbon as if it’s a toxic substance to be buried deep in the ground (at a massive cost and is nowhere close to operating at scale), over NbS would not only be economically short sighted but ethically questionable.

Carbon is the building block of life and needs to be brought back into nature and soils where it provides a plethora of benefits. Carbon markets have the potential to facilitate a massive wealth transfer to support transitions to sustainable development in the least developed countries. Ignoring NbS would lead to these gains being realised among the privileged few living in already privileged areas, diverting resources from more holistic and impactful solutions that offer dignified life to the many.

Looking ahead: the call for sustainability
While project quality and long-term viability are essential, the term permanence is not an appropriate framing.

Instead, we should pivot our focus to “sustainability”, encompassing environmental, climatic, and socio-economic factors. It’s crucial to identify and address the root causes of current unsustainable practices, engage communities, design approaches based on solid scientific foundations, and transparently share results. Embracing successes and learning from shortcomings will be key, and those that learn from failures ought not be shamed but celebrated.

The risk of not reaching or reversing carbon impacts in projects can be quantified and appropriate buffers are created, and projects can be bundled to reduce the risk of single failures leading to unrealised carbon claims. It’s not about the tree, it’s about the forest. And even more, it’s how forest and human habitation coexist – extractive and damaging paradigms have become resilient due to poverty, but regenerative ones can become equally so through development. Anchoring sustainability into green development is inherently better than anchoring them in time-limited payments such as carbon credits. Payments should fund the transition, not a new status quo that will collapse as they are eventually withdrawn.

The standards of carbon credits need to be improved, but not through more bureaucracy from certifiers – the current requirements are arduous and expensive enough and rule out massive amounts of smaller potential projects that could make real change. A better route is to radically improve transparency that would allow buyers, as well as the many institutions that hold markets accountable, to easily assess what is junk and what is not.

CMW raises concerns about the legacy we’re leaving for our grandchildren if we store carbon temporarily. However, with a misplaced focus on carbon storage’s temporary nature and de-prioritising nature-based solutions, we contribute to perpetuating the already acute environmental degradation and the following poverty, displacement, and conflict for many people living in the developing world. Indeed, even if we solved climate change globally today, all of these issues would persist. A world like this should not be morally sustainable for anyone now, let alone as a legacy for our grandchildren.

The carbon market presents a golden opportunity to redefine our relationship with the environment and each other. Many different solutions, including technological ones, will end up being vital at different times and for different reasons to overcome the myriad of environmental, social, and climatic challenges we are facing. As we navigate its complexities, let’s prioritise transparency, collaboration, and above all, holistic sustainability – for both the planet and the populations globally. We must embrace the complexity and work with it rather than put our hopes in silver bullet technological solutions that may or may not emerge, be sufficient, or work as we expected. Our choices today will shape the legacy we leave for generations to come.

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