It is the positive carbon value of this protected land that functions both as a potential revenue stream for the inhabitants or administrators of the area, as well as an opportunity for the international community to encourage emitters to begin, or continue, the journey towards becoming carbon neutral. As will be demonstrated, the myriad of benefits accrued from responsible and effective conservation can originate in one part of the world and reach across the globe.

Scholars argue that “…success can be achieved by aligning targets for biodiversity protection with the habitat protection and restoration necessary to bring down greenhouse gas concentrations and promote natural and societal adaptation to climate change.”[1] It is well-known that the most effective way to capture carbon from the atmosphere is through photosynthesis, the process through which plants convert sunlight into nutrients, which means that the more photosynthesis that occurs across the planet, the more carbon is being drawn out of the atmosphere. The logical connection then becomes that the preservation and planting of new photosynthetic organisms is a real and efficient way to reduce the carbon contributing to global warming. In practical terms, it is conservation and reforestation. While reforestation has important impacts such as regenerating flood barriers or halting desertification[2] and encouraging the return of biodiversity, preserving existing forests is more important because of their capacity for capturing more carbon as well as holding onto what they already have.

A recent article in the New York Times,[3] which followed villagers and scientists working and living in the peat bogs of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) discuss the increasing understanding of how important environments like that are to mitigating climate change. Peat retains three times as much carbon as forests and is a vital part of the overall health of the equatorial forests. The threat of logging in these areas then has the dual effect of the loss of precious old-growth trees as well as the negative effect of their absence on the ability of the bogs to sustain themselves. Like many biodiversity hotspots, the people inhabiting the region subsist on a minimal amount of currency and interaction from the outside world, most often due to the lack of infrastructure, which has the positive effect of preserving the natural world but the negative effect of limiting people’s access to basic levels of opportunity and development. This tension is addressed in the article when the local people argue that they are being asked to stifle their desires for modernization and economic growth by the very people who thrive on those things and are the real threats to the environment. In essence, the planet needs to keep them underdeveloped to facilitate the over development of the rest of the world. So what is the just solution? Local peoples argue that the emitters should compensate them for their preservation of the landscape, which would allow them to live above subsistence without having to use the lucrative natural resources at their disposal. This is precisely the delicate maneuvering that market-based conservation can address because it rewards conservation and encourages smart and sustainable development at the local level, led by local people.

In the past, conservation was very much linked to the dispossession of indigenous peoples, as in the creation of America’s national parks,[4] but has evolved considerably since then to include local populations and thus to be sensitive to their needs. It can also mean additional revenue streams for poor, rural areas, as well as recognition of their rights to certain areas and living practices. A key component of responsible and sustainable conservation necessitates working with the people already living in and caring for these biodiversity hotspots in order to reduce conflict and increase the potential for the real longevity of reserves.

As demonstrated by the case above, holistic approaches that consider the human element in conjunction with the flora and fauna have to be the way forward. A strong contender for the realistic facilitation of this complex problem is the marketisation of acts of preservation that allows for remuneration to local populations to recognize and reward their work towards mitigating climate change. In this vein, carbon markets and nature-based tokens offer a reasonable avenue for mutual gain.

Conservation is so important to mitigating climate change because of the carbon stores contained in unspoiled land and its continued capacity for capturing carbon. It also allows for the preservation and growth of fauna, which in turn keeps the landscape vital and increases biodiversity. Nature relies on the subtle cycles of plant and animal life to regenerate and expand, which often means no development and traditional, low impact living. However, basic human needs cannot be ignored or denied as a sacrifice for over-developed regions of the world and science shows that the natural disruptions of pastoral living contribute to the health of ecosystems.[5]

In sum, conservation is vital in the efforts towards global climate goals, however, it is equally vital to ensure that it is holistic, multi-faceted and addresses the needs and concerns of all people directly affected by conservation efforts. Learning from the past to engender success in the future requires this; the planet requires this. 

[1] Roberts Callum M.O’Leary Bethan C. and Hawkins Julie P. 2020 Climate change mitigation and nature conservation both require higher protected area targets Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B3752019012120190121

[2] See https://www.greatgreenwall.org for efforts to slow desertification across the Sahara Desert borderlands.

[3] Maclean, R. (2022). What Do the Protectors of Congo’s Peatlands Get in Return? The New York Times. [online] 22 Feb. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/21/headway/peatlands-congo-climate-change.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=Climate%20and%20Environment

[4] Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Mark David Spence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[5] Brockington, D. and Igoe, J. (2006). Eviction for Conservation: A Global Overview. Conservation and Society, 4(3), pp.424–470.