In conservation-minded circles, Thomas Lovejoy is a rock star. It was Lovejoy who coined the phrase “biological diversity,” after all, and he was one of the first scientists to draw attention to the loss of it in the Amazon rainforest, which he has studied since the 1960s. He created the television series Nature. And Lovejoy, who is a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and teaches environmental science and policy at George Mason University, received the prestigious Blue Planet Award during the United Nations’ Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development for his contributions to solving the world’s environmental problems.
So when Lovejoy talked about his solutions to one of the planet’s biggest and scariest environmental problems – climate change – a sense of heightened anticipation filled the room. After cataloguing the horrors of a warming world – a soon-to-be glacierless Glacier National Park, massive tree die-offs, homeless polar bears and pikas, shrinking snowpacks, rising sea levels swallowing island nations — Lovejoy asked: So do we go out to the nearest bar and never reappear, or are there things that can be done about it?”
Hold the scotch – at least for now. There’s plenty we can do, but we’ll have to look beyond the energy sector for answers, he told the crowd. Yes, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases need to come down – and fast – but we also need to “re-green” the globe, Lovejoy said. While cars, power plants and other industrial sources of greenhouse gases release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, plants do the opposite: they suck up CO2, a key ingredient of photosynthesis. But urban development, the conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland and other landscape changes have removed a lot of CO2-absorbing vegetation and soils. Over the past three decades, ecosystems have lost 200 to 250 billion tons of carbon, Lovejoy said.
“Were we to bring some of it back, we can reduce some of the impacts on natural and human systems (from climate change),” he said.
Expanding tree cover, reconnecting fragmented patches of wildlife habitat, restoring grazing lands to healthy grasslands and “modifying” agricultural practices to build up carbon not only can bring CO2 back down to earth, it’s also often good for the bottom line, he said. For instance, sequestering CO2 on farmland increases soil productivity.
Just how much “re-greening” is necessary to soak up enough carbon dioxide to make a meaningful difference? By replenishing vegetation we could sequester 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 50 years, Lovejoy said.
At the same time, we also need to do a better job of preserving existing ecosystems, Lovejoy added. Deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of annual carbon emissions, so halting the loss of forests is key, he said.
Lovejoy isn’t the only one pushing “re-greening” as part of the solution to climate change. In 2007, the Society for Ecological Restoration International issued a statement urging government leaders, conservation organizations and private institutions to “plan, finance and coordinate” ecological restoration projects and programs to help mitigate climate change.
Policy makers and land managers are starting to come around to the idea, Lovejoy said. The word “restoration” has begun to show up in policy documents and management plans from the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And Lovejoy is working with the Brazilian government to come up with a plan to restore degraded ecosystems in southern Brazil.
“It is beginning to get attention,” Lovejoy said. “Not at the scale I’d like it to, but it is starting to happen.”
Lovejoy also weighed in on the sticky subject of international emission reduction targets. While the 20-year-old United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for preventing average global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, that’s nowhere near ambitious enough, he said.
“The two degrees target is actually much too generous a level,” he said. “The last time the earth was two degrees warmer, sea level was four to six meters higher. I don’t think you need to know more than that, especially if you live in Manhattan or the Maldives Islands.”
It seems more likely, though, that policy makers will actually raise the target, not lower it. Climate researchers say emissions will need to drop 15 percent by 2020 to stay below the two degree threshold. But as Oliver Geden, a senior research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs points out, global greenhouse emissions continue to increase, and a comprehensive international climate treaty isn’t expected until at least 2015 – and won’t go into effect until several years later.
“If there’s one thing I want you to remember,” Lovejoy said before stepping down from the podium in Santa Fe last night, “it’s that the more there is climate change, the harder it is to manage.”
Photo: Lovejoy in the field. From RainforestTrust.org, where Lovejoy serves on the Board of Directors.