Authored by Sydney J. Chamberlin, Ph.D. Climate Policy Associate, The Nature Conservancy in California
Record breaking heat waves. Massive mega-fires. Hurricane after hurricane. In a year wrought with disaster on global scales, these fingerprints of climate change serve as a poignant reminder that the time for climate action is now. With a recent Executive Order, California Governor Gavin Newsom lays out a new possible path for action – focusing on the role that natural and working lands can play in mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity.
When sustainably managed, our natural and working lands – our forests, wetlands, grasslands, farmlands, rangeland, deserts and urban green spaces – provide a multitude of services that support thriving communities and habitat: they provide food, fiber, and recreational space; store and transport water; bolster local economies; support wildlife; buffer communities against floods, storms, and other disasters; and capture and store carbon.
In the same way that our lands can act as a carbon sink, changes that impact soil organic matter and ecosystem health – including land-use modifications, deforestation, wildfires, and more – can result in stored carbon being released to the atmosphere. Ultimately, the dance between carbon stored and carbon released determines whether our lands function as a net sink of carbon or net source of carbon – and consequently, whether they serve as an asset or a liability in the fight against climate change.
In the United States, managed forests and other lands have traditionally acted as net carbon sinks (EPA, 2020). However, over the past 150 years, land-use changes have added almost half as much carbon to the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions (Houghton & Nassikas, 2017; Le Quéré et al., 2017) – and climate stressors are further driving changes in ecosystem carbon stocks, threatening to turn some of our lands into a net source of emissions (Sleeter et al., 2019).
In light of this threat, decision-makers and governments are increasingly recognizing the role that strategic land management, conservation, and restoration activities (also known as nature-based climate solutions) can play in removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in soil and vegetation.
These nature-based strategies provide climate mitigation benefits while they deliver a suite of additional environmental, economic and social benefits – enhancing both ecosystem and community resilience. Protecting people and nature from the worsening impacts of climate change will require swift and decisive action that recognizes the importance of natural and working lands and intact ecosystems.
In 2020, California legislators led efforts to integrate nature into the State’s climate strategy. Assemblymember Kalra’s (aptly named) Assembly Bill 3030 aimed to protect 30% of the state’s land areas and water by 2030, aligning with an international “30 by 30” campaign that strives to avoid a point of no return for many of Earth’s species and ecosystems. Assembly Bill 2954, authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, would have required the State to set an overall climate goal for California’s natural and working lands and to identify methods to help the State utilize the natural and working lands sector in achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.
California’s new Executive Order, signed in October 2020, builds on the leadership of Assemblymembers Kalra and Rivas and advances some of the outcomes that Assembly Bills 3030 and 2954 strove to achieve. The Order calls for the State to protect 30% of the state’s water and land by 2030, and directs the California Natural Resources Agency to form a California Biodiversity Collaborative to help achieve this goal.
The Order also acknowledges the critical role that the stewardship of natural and working lands must play in achieving the State’s climate change, air quality, water quality, equity, and biodiversity goals. It tasks California agencies with establishing a climate target for the natural and working lands sector and firmly establishes carbon sequestration as a part of the State’s climate strategy. The Order further directs State agencies to identify and implement strategies that will accelerate the removal of carbon with nature – while building climate resilience in California communities.
Accomplishing these ambitious goals will require the State to reexamine its current priorities and funding commitments – though there are also a number of non-monetary policy pathways that the State can use to elevate the role of natural and working lands in its climate action.
The potential rewards of this action are substantial; a newly released report by The Nature Conservancy shows that implementing a suite of nature-based climate solutions could reduce more than 514 million metric tons of carbon dioxide cumulatively by 2050, with economic savings from avoided damages of more than $2.4 billion (The Nature Conservancy, 2020). The report shows that, in many cases, nature-based strategies can be dramatically scaled up by better aligning existing California policies and programs – and at a fraction of the cost of other methods such as industrial carbon capture. The many additional multiple benefits that accompany nature-based climate solutions provide another incentive to achieve the goals laid out by the Executive Order.
In the post-COVID-19 world, restoring the vibrancy of California communities will require the State to balance climate action against other competing priorities. Nature is a powerful and cost-effective tool that the State can and should deploy to remove carbon. Implementing this tool will require shifting priorities and funding to match the urgency of the climate crisis. The time to act is now – and in acting to protect nature, California ensures that nature can help to protect us.
EPA. (2020). Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks-1990-2018
Houghton, R., & Nassikas, A. A. (2017). Global and regional fluxes of carbon from land use and land cover change 1850–2015. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 31(3), 456–472. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016GB005546
Le Quéré, C., Andrew, R. M., Friedlingstein, P., Sitch, S., Pongratz, J., Manning, A. C., …, Zhu, D. (2017). Global carbon budget 2017. Earth System Science Data Discussions, 10, 405–448. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd‐2017‐123
Sleeter, B. M. , D. C. Marvin, D. R. Cameron, P. C. Selmants, A. L. Westerling, J. Kreitler, C. J. Daniel, J. Liu, and T. S. Wilson. (2019). Effects of 21st‐century climate, land use, and disturbances on ecosystem carbon balance in California. Global Change Biology 25(10):3334-3353. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14677
The Nature Conservancy. (2020). Nature-based Climate Solutions: A Roadmap to Accelerate Action in California. https://tinyurl.com/climate-policy-roadmap