We're destroying Earth's ability to clean the air of greenhouse gases

Natural lands provide a filtration system for the atmosphere, but they are disappearing quickly

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 9, 2019 7:30AM (EDT)


Understandably, most of the discourse around fighting climate change has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with an eye towards avoiding dire predictions of climate catastrophe should the global temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius. But simply reducing carbon emissions isn't enough. Our planet's survival may very well depend on efforts to clean the atmosphere, removing excess carbon.

The good news is we already have the means to accomplish this goal. Natural land, rife with flora and fauna, is nature's own filtering system, able to absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The bad news is that humanity is laying waste to the very natural lands needed to clean the planet so that it is usable for future generations.

This week, both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Center for American Progress released reports showing how poor land management is making it much harder for the planet's natural filtration system to clean our atmosphere.

"In a warming world, we are increasingly dependent on healthy natural systems to protect us from the most damaging impacts of climate change, yet we are losing our forests, grasslands, and wetlands at a blistering pace," Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Salon.

The Center for American Progress commissioned a report from Conservation Science Partners to examine the rate of natural land degradation in the United States. Using an elaborate method of tracking various data trends, chief scientist Brett Dickson told Salon, they were able to demonstrate that a full football field's worth of natural land disappears every 30 seconds in this country.

"Natural landscapes — you think about the vegetation, whether it's trees, grasslands, wetlands — they allow us to sequester the carbon that is otherwise released into the atmosphere," Dickson explained over the phone. "As you convert a wetland to a parking lot or to some other type of human infrastructure, you're losing the opportunity for that patch of land to sequester carbon and creating the opportunity for additional greenhouse gas-type emissions."

According to Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, "natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry."

Taking away that land, then, means losing the literal filtration  system for the planet.

"We must move quickly to transform the way we produce and consume food and to protect and restore natural ecosystems like forests," Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Chief Program Officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an emailed statement. "And that means aggressively protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s lands and 30 percent of our oceans by 2030 if we are to avert, and not hasten, the worst impacts of the climate crisis."

"We should be probably paying a little more attention to how we build up rather than out and think about more efficient uses of lands," Dickson said.

Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II argued, upon the report's release, that "early, far-reaching action across several areas is required" to protect and preserve the natural lands that are the only realistic option for cleaning the atmosphere.

It may all seem daunting, but, Lee-Ashley argued,"The good news is that the protection of nature is immensely popular across political lines, and is a value that unites the country."

CAP is pushing for the country to commit to preserving a minimum of 30% of its lands and oceans as natural land. The reasons for this are multifaceted, Dickson argued. Natural lands "have an inherent value that goes beyond what can be monetized," he said, pointing to the way they provide clean drinking water, habitats for wildlife, and opportunities for recreation and the simple solace of communing with nature.

But they are also a critical part of any possible hope of preventing climate change from overtaking the planet and directly threatening the future of the human race to survive and thrive. Natural lands are how the earth breathes in the carbon and breathes out a better, more sustainable mix of atmospheric gases. Without it, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the planet to heal enough to prevent disaster.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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