Finding Natural Solutions to Cutting Carbon Emissions in Washington State

This legislative session, the Evergreen State can help lead the way in using its own natural resources to capture and store harmful emissions

If you follow climate policy you may have heard about something called “natural climate solutions.” As it becomes clear that we need to not only reduce emissions, but consider ways to limit carbon in the atmosphere, natural climate solutions offer a range of tools to help us address climate change, while supporting green space, working lands, and rural communities. An added bonus? Natural climate solutions protect birds and people from the worst impacts of climate change while also protecting the habitat birds need in a climate-changed world. They’re good economic policy, particularly for rural communities.

But what are they?

Natural climate solutions include forestry and ranching practices that capture carbon and store it in the trees, the soil, or the grasslands. Planting or restoring forests, sea grasses, wetlands, and other natural vegetation not only captures carbon dioxide, but it provides habitat and buffer areas that will help us adapt to climate change as we continue to fight it.

Combating climate change while protecting the places birds need

Audubon’s latest report on climate change, Survival by Degrees, shows us that holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would protect up to 76% of North American birds who would otherwise be at risk of extinction if we stay on our current trajectory. To reach this ambitious goal we’ll need to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions across our economy. We should continue to do everything we can to speed up emissions reductions, we must also leverage every opportunity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the remedies suggested by the report is investment in natural climate solutions.

There are a number of emerging technologies that can capture and store carbon emissions, but none of them compete with nature’s best technology: plants and soil. With smart policy, we can protect and enhance the farms, fields, forests, and aquatic lands that naturally grab and store carbon from the atmosphere. Doing so protects habitat today, so that birds have a fighting chance in the climate-changed world of tomorrow.

Improving practices on our working lands also promotes clean water, improved air quality, and strong local economies in rural areas. Natural climate solutions build on Audubon’s track record of success partnering with landowners to maximize conservation gains on working lands. We can leverage data from Survival by Degrees to show us where birds are the most vulnerable, helping to prioritize carbon sequestration projects in areas projected to be important habitat in a warming world.

Natural climate solutions in Washington state

Last fall, Audubon Washington launched a campaign focused on building durable public will for natural climate solutions. The campaign is working with chapters across the state to build robust and sustained bipartisan support for policies that leverage the Evergreen State’s unique and diverse landscapes to sequester carbon dioxide. In the short 2020 legislative session that ends in March, Audubon Washington is supporting a number of policies that will move us in the right direction.

Setting targets, promoting sequestration

Climate change impacts all of us. Government represents all of us. That’s why Audubon Washington is calling on the legislature to set new greenhouse gas emissions limits that target net-zero emissions by mid-century. A big part of reaching net-zero is ensuring we’re capturing as much carbon as possible in our farms, fields, forests, and aquatic lands. House Bill 2311 checks both of these boxes, setting aggressive targets for emissions reductions while calling on government agencies to include a consideration of carbon sequestration in all contracting and grant making.

Carbon farming

Some of the best climate solutions involve improving agricultural practices, but farmers often need support in affording the transition to more climate-friendly practices. Senate Bill 5947 makes voluntary grants available to Washington state’s farmers to help them reduce emissions on their farm and sequester more carbon in their soils. It builds on the precedent set by other wildly successful conservation grant programs in Washington state, creating a new program explicitly focused on supporting the conservation and climate value of working lands. Policies like this can help support fantastic farming practices like that in Audubon’s conservation ranching program.

Every tool in the toolbox

To have any chance of holding warming to 1.5 degree Celsius there’s no substitute for policies that quickly reduce emissions. Global emissions trends make it clear: we’re not on track. As we continue to work on policies that will help get us on track, we’ll need to absorb as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as possible. Doing so also benefits rural communities, working lands, and habitat.

Addressing something as all-encompassing as climate change requires us to approach it from multiple angles. Natural climate solutions provide an opportunity to wed conservation and climate policy in an approach that recognizes the value of our natural and working lands.