Natural Climate Solutions Report

How maintaining and restoring natural habitats can help mitigate climate change.

In 2019 Audubon’s Survival by Degrees report sounded a stark warning: Without meaningful action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction. This Natural Climate Solutions Report provides a scientific framework to help us address this existential threat.

 

We focused on one of the most powerful tools in the climate toolkit: the natural ability of ecosystems to store carbon. By keeping more carbon in the ground and capturing it in plants, we can reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

 

The researchers looked at forests, grasslands, aridlands, coastal and interior wetlands, tundra, and urban and suburban ecosystems. In each, they found significant overlap between important bird habitat and areas of high carbon value. The bottom line: what’s good for birds is also good for climate change mitigation.

 

Key findings:
 

  • Ongoing conservation and restoration of the priority areas identified in our report are estimated to deliver up to 23 percent of the U.S. commitment to draw down greenhouse-gas emissions in the 2016 Paris Agreement.
     
  • The majority of these priority areas are on private lands, including upward of 60 percent of priority forests, 65 percent of priority coastal wetlands, and 81 percent of priority grasslands identified in this report. These findings point to the vital role of landowner and community engagement in land management and stewardship.

Translating Science into Action

Investment in the health and resilience of our farms, fields, and forests could deliver significant emissions reductions, while also improving the places that are becoming increasingly important for the survival of birds. In addition, widespread use of these natural climate solutions could protect drinking water sources, increase the resilience of food systems, reduce the heat island effect in cities, and drive investment across the country. It is critical that policies are designed so that the benefits are felt equitably—from cleaner air across different communities within a city, to equal access to programs for private landowners, to ensuring that traditional and Indigenous land stewards have a say in the decision-making process.

 

Restoring degraded landscapes or maintaining healthy areas could help achieve a goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, which would help combat both the climate and biodiversity crises. Climate-smart management of both our recreation areas and working lands can help reach this objective.

 

Audubon is working to promote a slate of policy ideas that will drive the adoption of natural climate solutions at the federal, state, and local levels.

Increase Funding and Resources for Farm Bill Conservation Programs

The Farm Bill is the largest source of federal funding for private-land conservation. Farm Bill programs provide financial and technical assistance, cost-share agreements, easements, and land-retirement options for landowners to protect and enhance natural spaces on their property. These programs have caps on funding or acreage enrolled, but remain popular and oversubscribed. Audubon supports doubling Farm Bill conservation programs, as well as prioritizing projects that increase bird habitat, benefit underserved farmers and ranchers, and result in high carbon sequestration and increased resilience.

 

Create New Incentives for Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Practices

In order to adopt new climate-smart practices, landowners often need access to capital and protection from financial risk. Congress and state agencies have the opportunity to invent new programs that provide direct payments or tax incentives to reward landowners for implementing climate-smart management practices, or make it easier for private landowners to access voluntary carbon markets that can supplement the cost of management changes that sequester or store additional carbon. Programs must have proper safeguards to ensure ‘additionality’ and permanence of carbon sequestration, and to prevent leakage. New programs could also incentivize sustainably-sourced wood products such as cross-laminated timber, which could also serve as replacements for energy-intensive construction materials such as steel and concrete. 

 

Restore and Expand Our Forests

Forests hold great potential to store carbon while protecting habitat lies in forests—specifically in improved forest management, reforestation, mitigation of fire risk, and reduction in land conversion. Management changes, including increasing species and structural diversity and lengthening timber-harvest schedules, enhance forest regrowth, storing more carbon and supporting more biodiversity than manually planted tree farms. Many landscapes also need reforestation due to damage from wildfires, disease, and pests. The U.S. Forest Service has a backlog of at least 1.3 million acres that must be addressed. We must invest in nursery capacity to ensure there are enough saplings of native and ecologically appropriate trees species. Protection of old-growth forests, like the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, is important because they hold massive amounts of carbon, especially in their deep soils, and have larger trees more resistant to fire. It is also crucial to invest in urban forestry because of trees’ capacity to cool cities, create important stopover sites for migratory birds, and better distribute green spaces more equitably across neighborhoods. 

Create a National Strategy to Protect and Restore Grasslands and Sagebrush

Native grasslands and rangelands have become some of the most reliable and resilient carbon sinks because of their ability to store carbon in their extensive root structures, but have dwindled to just 40 percent of their historic range. Despite their ecological importance, there is no national strategy to combat grassland conversion, decline, and encroachment of invasive species like cheatgrass. Audubon supports a national prioritization of native grassland conservation, efforts to avoid conversion (including easements and the USDA Sodsaver program), financial and technical support for innovative projects that test new management strategies, and management for ecosystem health on public grasslands used for grazing. Sustainable ranching can be also part of the solution, and Audubon supports the creation of market signals that reward ranchers who adopt regenerative grazing approaches and manage their rangelands to improve bird habitat, such as through Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative.

 

Deploy Natural Infrastructure to Sequester Carbon and Increase Resilience

Our built environment is increasingly at risk of flooding as a result of sea-level rise, rainfall, and development of natural floodplains. Threats from rising seas and rivers, and efforts to protect existing development using seawalls and levees, are squeezing coastal and river habitats important for birds and degrading natural flood protections. Natural infrastructure—including wetlands, oyster beds, sea grasses, reactivated floodplains, and mangrove forests—can reduce flood risks, provide natural water storage, reduce stormwater pollution and runoff, and sequester carbon in urban and suburban environments. Audubon supports efforts to fund and create incentives for using natural infrastructure, especially when rebuilding after or preparing for natural disasters. 

 

Expand Research, Development, and Innovation of Natural Climate Solutions

More scientific research is needed to accurately quantify current and potential carbon sequestration, understand how different landscapes and projects can meet environmental and climate goals, and determine which practices are most effective for preserving and restoring carbon sinks. Audubon supports increasing funding for relevant government research arms—including the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—as well as for programs that provide funding for independent entities to drive on-site research, such as the Conservation Innovation Grants program. Without a comprehensive national program, many states have created their own innovative programs that improve landowner access to financial and technical assistance to implement NCS. Where possible, the federal government should support this innovation and help successful programs become more widespread. 

Sanderling. Walker Golder

Carbon Sequestration in Ecosystems

FORESTS
Forests store more total carbon than any other ecosystem, due to both the value of trees as carbon sinks and the amount of forested land. Our report identifies 538 million acres of priority forest. Conservation and restoration of our priority forest areas is essential for the survival of many climate vulnerable bird species, including the Wood Thrush. 
 

COASTAL WETLANDS
Coastal wetlands store the highest amount of carbon per acre and represent a significant opportunity for increased carbon sequestration through restoration; they are also disproportionately important to multiple bird species, including threatened shorebirds like the Piping Plover. Our analysis identified 24.7 million acres of priority coastal wetland habitats.

GRASSLANDS
Grassland ecosystems—including the 576 million acres of priority grasslands identified in our report—represent both opportunity and risk. Without active conservation and restoration, some current carbon sinks are in danger of becoming carbon sources. Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Program and public policies that provide incentives for conservation are both essential for advancing natural climate solutions.
 

CITIES AND SUBURBS
Urban and suburban areas present opportunities to restore natural ecosystems and create carbon sinks, while also protecting biodiversity, increasing environmental equity, and delivering health and quality of life benefits for communities.

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