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Restoration of agricultural lands can drastically slow extinction, fight climate change




The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined: Storms and fires are worsening as up to a million species are in danger of extinction.

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

A global roadmap, published Wednesday in Nature, identifies a route to absorb almost half of the carbon dioxide created since the Industrial Revolution and avoiding more than 70 percent of projected extinction of animals and plants on earth. The key? Return of a strategic 30 percent of the world’s agricultural lands to nature.

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

Onesht is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat climate change, said Bernardo BN Strassburg, one of the study’s authors and an environmental scientist with the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the International Institute for Sustainability. And it is one of the most important ways to avoid global extinction.

The researchers used a map from the European Space Agency that breaks down the planet’s surface into a network of plots classified according to ecosystem: forests, wetlands, shrubs, pastures and arid regions. Using an algorithm they developed, the scientists estimated which parts, if returned to their natural states, would provide the highest returns for mitigating climate change and losing biodiversity at the lowest cost.

It was not enough just to throw one result over another. If you really want to optimize for all three things at once, said Dr. Strassburg, this leads to another map.

A similar and complementary tool, Global Security Network, was released last month. It identifies the planet’s most strategic 50 percent to protect, filtering for rare species, high biodiversity, large mammal landscapes, untouched deserts and climate stabilization.

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

In the latest study, scientists found that benefits increase and decrease depending on the amount of land being restored.

Giving up 15 percent of strategic agricultural land, for example, could save 60 percent of extinction and seize about 30 percent of the carbon built into the atmosphere. The authors estimate that globally, 55 percent of agricultural land can be turned into nature by maintaining current levels of food production 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 propose this grand vision.

The biggest challenge seems to be the political will and finding the money to pay the farmers to get back so much land in nature. But the authors point to hundreds of billions or trillions dollars a year subsidizing fossil fuels and unsustainable farming practices.

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

The study was requested by United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty aimed at preserving biodiversity. One of the authors, David Cooper, is his deputy executive secretary.

A recent report from the convention showed that world leaders had failed to meet their final round of goals. The United States is the only country in the world, with the exception of the Vatican, that has not signed the treaty.

The study will be used to help inform global commitments to UN biodiversity and climate conventions next year. But because the new study highlights natures that do not take national borders into account, it poses a diplomatic challenge.

This defines much higher benefits in general if you ignore the country borders and just look at where these advantages are, said Dr. Chazdon. The most strategic countries are highly distributed unevenly; tropical forests and wetlands, for example, carry great potential for carbon conservation and biodiversity conservation.

Are we saying, We would simply give up all those benefits and be provincial about it? she asked. Or are there ways to cooperate internationally?

The authors note that preserving the existing desert remains the most important way to protect biodiversity and see their proposed restoration as a critical addition. Other essential steps Dr. Strassburg listed: Banning the use of fossil fuels; reducing food, energy and plastic waste; and making sustainable choices when buying things like food, cars, and clothes.

Once consumers start changing their models, he said, companies react really quickly.

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