Our recent Briefing Room event explored the relationship between land use and nature.

Understanding environmental limits provides a baseline to measure impacts.

Our webinar event ‘The twin challenge of tackling climate change while preserving nature’ followed the release of Climateworks Centre’s ‘Living within limits: Adapting the planetary boundaries to understand Australia’s contribution to planetary health’ report, which came out of the Land Use Futures program; a collaboration between Climateworks and Deakin University.

The report helps us understand how Australia is stacking up against a set of environmental limits or thresholds.

It shows why there’s an urgent need to act and how staying within limits will support a safe future for humans and the environment.

The twin challenge of tackling climate change while preserving nature

This research shows Australia has transgressed national-scale limits for three planetary boundaries: biodiversity, land-system change, and nitrogen and phosphorus flows.

Australia is also approaching national limits for climate change and freshwater use.

The research also shows that if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue, within four to nine years from 2021 Australia will have exceeded its total emissions budget to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Climate and nature hold many solutions in common

The good news is, Australia’s land use sector holds many solutions which can improve human and planetary health, such as waste management, conservation and restoration of natural lands, and shifts in food production.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use industries also have a critical role to play in reducing emissions and sequestering carbon.

We must restore the balance

To reach net zero and limit warming to 1.5°C, we must both significantly cut emissions and help restore and preserve nature’s ability to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We address them in tandem because they’re inextricably linked.

We need to restore the balance between ‘sources’ of greenhouse gas emissions and natural systems that absorb emissions, known as ‘sinks’ – and nature is our greatest carbon sink.

Illustration of the balance between emissions sources and natural sinks. Emission sources include ~25% from electricity production, ~24% from food, agriculture & land use, ~21% from industry, ~14% from transportation, ~6% from buildings and ~10% other energy-related emissions. On the other side 59% of those emissions remain in the atmosphere, ~24% would be absorbed by land sinks and ~17% would be absorbed by coastal and ocean sinks
Image: Emissions sources and natural sinks, Project Drawdown 2020

It is estimated that as much as 41 per cent of our current emissions are naturally absorbed by forests and the ocean.

However, this also means we are still emitting more CO2 than Earth’s systems can absorb.

And if nothing is done to protect our existing carbon sinks, we risk triggering ecological and climate tipping points that would see huge quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere, making it virtually impossible to maintain temperatures below 1.5°C.

We also need to account for the full value of nature

The webinar also highlighted our recent work around measuring ‘natural capital’.

Natural capital is one way to visualise and talk about nature so that its value – both intrinsic and economic – can be recognised and incorporated into our decision making.

If we are going to halt the loss of the natural world and ultimately restore it, we also need a clear set of goals and the ability to measure progress towards these goals.

In 2020, Climateworks convened relevant agriculture and environment stakeholders to consider the way natural capital is measured in Australia.

This led to the development of a Natural Capital Measurement Catalogue (NCMC) and the Natural Capital Investment Initiative (NCII).

The NCII addresses both the need for consistent, comprehensive natural capital measures and the need for public and private financial incentives to support farmers and land managers to better measure and manage their natural capital.

In its second phase, the NCII aims to build the business case for farmers and land managers to measure and improve their natural capital, and to support organisations’ ability to measure and report nature-related impacts and dependencies.