The IPCC recently came out with yet another report on the state of the climate. A month later, the historic report is barely ever mentioned, and our civilization continues on its course towards a climate catastrophe. Not everyone is apathetic to the state of our ecosystem. Millions of people across the globe are aware of the severity of the situation, but the right course of effective action appears unclear. In this article, we’re going to take a look at new research that points us towards arguably the most important step that humanity should take to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The clock is ticking

The climate crisis is not an ‘all or nothing’ game. Every fraction of a degree of global temperature increase translates into billions worth of damage, millions of people dead and countless animals and plants destroyed. We might not remain under the relatively safe level of warming of 1.5 degrees recommended by the IPCC, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up fighting. 

Our goal is to reduce CO2  in the atmosphere. There are two ways to achieve this: by reducing emissions and by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet, there are countless actions we can take as individuals to reduce emissions or prevent carbon release in the first place. Every action, no matter how small, counts. So where should we focus our efforts first?

Carbon that doesn’t fit in our budget

We suggest beginning with  “irrecoverable carbon”: an idea presented in a recent study “Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems” published in the science journal Nature. 

The study defines irrecoverable carbon as carbon that cannot be recaptured by the ecosystem within 30 years.

When comparing the climate importance of ecosystems, the irrecoverability of the carbon should be evaluated in conjunction with the total amount of carbon contained by the ecosystem and the rate of loss due to direct human action. For example, tropical forests are rich in carbon stored in trees; but recovering this carbon after the trees are harvested takes decades or centuries because the big trees of primary forest grow back very slowly, if at all.

Different ecosystems have wildly varying levels of carbon recoverability. A tropical grassland might take 20 years to recover lost carbon whereas a tropical rainforest will take a century or more, mangroves take up to 150 years, and it takes centuries for peatlands to replenish their carbon stocks. When these factors are weighed, moist tropical forests, mangroves, and tropical peatlands rank the highest concern. Therefore, for climate mitigation, it makes a great deal more sense to preserve these ecosystems of high irrecoverable carbon in the first place

Photo: Martin Schoeller

The future of these highly irrecoverable ecosystems rests on a knife-edge of vulnerability to human exploitation. Their fate will likely decide the balance of the global climate. Around 80,000 acres of rainforest are irreversibly destroyed every day. Contrary to what many people believe, we can’t simply replant or restore a rainforest -the web of animal-plant interdependency driving forest regeneration is far too complex for simple replanting to mimic. Over the course of hundreds of years, the carbon eventually will find its way back into the trees and soil; and over millions of years, evolution will replenish the biodiversity with new species. But we do not have hundreds or millions of years. 

We must preserve the world’s remaining ecosystems that store high amounts of irrecoverable carbon. The conservation of wet tropical forests, peatlands, and mangroves must be humanity’s number one priority. The preservation of these ecosystems can appear as daunting as the fight against climate change. So, where do we start?

Defenders of the climate

Tropical forests of high irrecoverable carbon are also home to indigenous peoples, especially in the Amazon. Indigenous Amazonians tend to live in balance with the primary forest that sustains their cultures and livelihoods. We can see the impact of indigenous people on forests from space: satellite data shows that deforestation on indigenous lands in the Amazon basin is twice as low as compared to non-indigenous protected areas. Empowering indigenous people to uphold their rights to territory and traditional culture offers an important path to climate mitigation. Similarly, if empowered for protection, local and indigenous communities living near tropical forests in Asia and Africa offer similar conservation opportunities. It is estimated that indigenous peoples and local communities manage 293 Gt C of carbon in tropical forests. 

It is estimated that indigenous peoples and local communities manage 293 Gt C of carbon in tropical forests. 

However, the pace of logging and mining and the spread of agriculture is accelerating.  No longer are any forests safe from predatory exploitation and/or deforestation; especially in the tropics where governance is often very weak. Likewise, indigenous lands everywhere are under increasing industrial pressure. Indigenous people and local communities often have few tools to defend their land against a wave of capitalist pressure and little or no voice in national society.  This is where we can help. The Kayapo people of the highly threatened Southeastern Amazon in Brazil provide a model of empowerment through alliances with outside conservation partners. The Kayapo allied with conservation NGOs more than two decades ago to help them navigate within a foreign culture and gain the capacity to continue defending and controlling their land in a lawless region of high deforestation.  

Satellite imagery shows that over nine million hectares of ratified Kayapo indigenous territory remain intact within a maelstrom of deforestation. This nine million hectares or almost 90% of Kayapo territory is land controlled by the Kayapo who have allied with the conservation movement and reject illegal activity namely goldmining, logging, and predatory fishing. More on the success of the Kayapo-NGO alliance here.

“Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot — and must not — be understated,”

Patricia Espinosa,UN Climate Change Executive Secretary

Time to act

Anyone serious about fighting climate change should find a way to support the indigenous people from the Amazon to West Papua. 

These people are fighting every day against the entire machine of our industrial civilization and need all the support they can get. They are fighting for their survival, but by doing so, they are fighting for the survival of our entire species. We cannot release the carbon stored in the soil and the trees of these ancient forests without putting humanity on track for a devastating climate crisis.

Only a third of rainforests are left, but seventy percent of this remainder are largely intact, wild forest.  

This number should give us hope for the future and energy to act in the present. A high percentage of the remaining tropical forests are still wild, biodiverse, and store hundreds of hundreds of gigatonnes of CO2. We have irreversibly lost hundreds of millions of hectares of rainforest, but we still have a chance to save more than a billion if we choose to act urgently and effectively. Start by contributing directly to the Kayapo territorial surveillance program. The ICFC is raising funds for new Kayapo guard posts, operating in the months when the forest is the most vulnerable. Join the fight and become an ally of the Kayapo.