George Monbiot leads call for Natural Climate Solutions

Writer and campaigner George Monbiot has co-authored a letter calling on governments to prioritise solutions devised by nature to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In an interview with Green World, he discusses the campaign for ecological restoration and the challenges faced by green activists today.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

Wikimedia Commons

Green World

An illustrious group of artists, scientists and environmental campaigners have teamed up to call for a rethink of the best way to tackle climate change.

Writer and environmentalist George Monbiot is spearheading the campaign, Natural Climate Solutions, and a letter published in the Guardian today has been signed by supporters including climate scientist Michael Mann, campaigner Greta Thunberg, musician Brian Eno and writers Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything.

The letter calls on the world’s governments to consider a new approach to tackling climate change – taking carbon out of the atmosphere by restoring our damaged ecosystems by calling for Natural Climate Solutions.

The authors state that ‘by defending, restoring and re-establishing forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural seabeds and other crucial ecosystems, very large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored.’

In practice, this could mean the reforestation of tropical rainforest land that has been cleared for plantations and timber production. In addition, coastal habitats like mangroves can sequester (draw down) carbon 40 times faster than tropical forests, meaning that these are habitats also ripe for restoration. But it is not just tropical habitats that can benefit – around the UK, there are already Natural Climate Solutions being tested, such as initiatives rewilding Scotland.

Peregrine falcon

Eric Kilby

Peregrine falcons have flourished after being reintroduced in the Knepp Estate rewilding project in West Sussex

However, while rewilding is gaining traction as a concept, this approach has not yet received much support, financial or otherwise, from government. According to Natural Climate Solutions, ecological restoration projects only receive around 2.5 per cent of the money allocated for climate mitigation.

Common models for carbon capture often focus on Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which involves growing large amounts of biomass in plantations to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then burning it in power stations to produce electricity. Any emissions from that process are then captured and buried. Despite the massive land use required for these plantations, the model appeals to investors.

“If you are interested in planting plantations and drawing down the carbon through BECCS, that can be very attractive to corporate capital because you can roll it out on a large scale and do the same thing everywhere,” Monbiot tells Green World. And that’s partly why ecological restoration projects don’t currently receive much funding. “It doesn’t immediately appeal to corporate capital because it’s not amenable to modular production.

“The thing about ecological restoration – and this is also one of its delights – is that it’s different everywhere and it’s also, in economic and political terms, much more complicated. You have shared land rights, you have tricky negotiations with local people and they have to have ownership and control of the projects, so it’s unattractive to corporate capital and that makes it generally unattractive to governments. But for the very same reasons, it should be highly attractive to the rest of us.”

However, Monbiot is also keen to stress that ecological restoration should not be used, as the campaign letter states, as a ‘substitute for the rapid and comprehensive decarbonisation of industrial economies’ – giving corporations permission to do nothing.

“It’s absolutely essential that we don’t allow it to be used for that purpose,” Monbiot says. “I believe the age of offsets is over – I don’t think it should ever have begun – because it’s now clear that we have to decarbonise our economies pretty comprehensively across all sectors. And at the same time, we have to draw down carbon from the atmosphere if we’re to have any hope of staying within 1.5 or even two degrees of global heating.

“There’s no room for trading, there’s no room for offsets, because there should be nothing left to trade. Rather than pushing our food around on the plate to pretend we’ve eaten it, we need to eat it.”

Community engagement is key to driving change

The importance of getting local people involved in restoration projects cannot be understated, Monbiot says. “It has to work not just economically but socially as well. It has to be subject to the full informed consent of the local people; they have to have a sense that the projects belong to them and that they belong to the projects. Like anything, if it’s going to be successful, it cannot be imposed.

“Where projects have gone wrong, particularly plantation projects, is when people have effectively been cleared out of the way to make them happen – for a start, that’s unjust, and it’s not going to be sustainable, because people are going to react against it. We have to have local people, particularly indigenous people, on the inside from the beginning.”

What will help to encourage engagement is the positive message of the campaign, focusing on possibilities rather than simply on tales of doom and despair. “We urgently need some positive and exciting stories to tell. This is not to say that we should muffle or disguise the deeply worrying realities of climate breakdown, but to keep people interested, and to ensure that there is the hope and determination required to create the political change we need, we also have to show the positive stories.

“In any campaign, an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair.”

The re-emergence of green activism

The environmental movement seems more hopeful – and more determined – than it has done in a while, as engagement with green issues continues to rise, school students go on strike and protesters with the Extinction Rebellion group shut down traffic in cities across the UK. The impact of these campaigns is already being felt, says Monbiot: “For instance, the BBC, in response to Extinction Rebellion and the climate strikes, claims now to be taking environmental issues seriously and is suddenly commissioning environmental programming – though what they’ve produced so far has been intensely disappointing.

“For many years now the BBC has been actively hostile to environmental programming, so it’s clear that already, groups like Extinction Rebellion and Youth For Climate have had an impact. Now, we have to make sure that impact is translated into real political and cultural change.

“There is always a sense that ‘they’ will take care of it, whoever ‘they’ might be – the powers that be. Well, it’s become horribly clear that the powers that be are not taking care of it – in fact they’re going to great lengths not to take the necessary action. So this requires constant political engagement, and mobilisation to demand that governments act on our behalf and prevent this existential crisis from turning into catastrophe.”

Monbiot hopes that the Natural Climate Solutions campaign can help to drive this much-needed engagement and mobilisation. “We just want to make sure as many people as possible know about the solutions and become enthusiastic about them.”

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London

Image: Julia Hawkins / Flickr / cc by 2.0

Taking Green politics further

Monbiot is positive about the role of the Green Party in this context, but acknowledges the restrictions of the electoral system in getting Green ideas into government. “As usual, the Green Party has been ahead of the curve on just about all the issues that count, including climate breakdown. Unfortunately in the UK, as everyone knows, it is massively hampered by our ridiculous electoral system. If there were any justice in the world it would be widely recognised as being the prescient party, which has long been advocating the solutions that are urgently required.

“My own position is that I feel Labour should announce, as soon as there is a general election date set, that come what may it will form a coalition with the Greens and (provided she retains her seat) appoint Caroline Lucas as its Environment Secretary. I think if Labour were to do that, it would appeal to a lot of people who are torn between the two parties, particularly younger people, but also it would bring in environmental expertise of a kind Labour patently does not possess.”

Visit the Natural Climate Solutions website to find out more.