Climate Change

Climate Solutions Already Exist in Nature, a Reminder

May 28, 2019

As one of the last orders he made as governor, Jerry Brown mandated that California be carbon neutral by 2045 and carbon negative thereafter. That’s a difficult challenge – California’s carbon emissions have dropped since the state passed its pioneering climate legislation in 2006, but to go “carbon negative” means we’d have to store more carbon than we emit.

There is a major part of the solution here that is obvious to everyone except the funders and politicians of the world: plants. A 2017 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that so-called “natural solutions” could provide 37 percent of the climate mitigation we’d need to keep the world to a less than 2-degree C temperature increase. But according to the Climate Policy Initiative, natural solutions have received just 2.5 percent of mitigation investment.

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

Ildiko Polony is launching a campaign, Wildfires to Wildflowers: Restoring California lands for climate stability. To get involved and sign up for the next hike, visit the website at

As a native plant nursery manager at San Francisco’s Literacy for Environmental Justice and as someone who has been in the restoration field for seven years, I see Governor Brown’s executive order as an opportunity for those of us in the restoration community, from weekend volunteers to non-profit advocates, from ranchers to government regulators, from research scientists to backyard restoration gardeners, to approach policymakers with our vision for restored ecosystems across California. Legislating large-scale habitat restoration will build a green labor force, mitigate the effects of climate change, take steps towards slowing the sixth great extinction, provide habitat for the pollinators we depend on for food, and contribute to a Green New Deal. The good news is that California state agencies and policy makers are increasingly aware of the potential that revived coastal marshes and inland wetlands, restored perennial grasslands, healthier, carbon rich soils, and regenerative forestry practices offer.

But there’s still a serious information deficit in the media and political discussion. The San Francisco Chronicle’s clean tech reporter David Baker labeled Brown’s executive order “a climate goal so ambitious that many experts don’t know how to reach it.” Baker listed the technologies that he was aware of that might solve the problem – concrete blocks made of carbon dioxide, gas-absorbing ocean algal blooms – but noted “none have been deployed at scale.”

Yet it is not only possible to remove carbon from the atmosphere “at scale,” it is actually quite simple and doesn’t require any technology at all — the Earth has been doing it since green plants came out of the oceans about 1 billion years ago. Most of us learned in grade school that plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Research shows that restoring habitat for carbon sequestration could be our single, most promising means of reaching the former governor’s goal. So as I read article after article that failed to mention this very simple concept, I felt myself wanting to scream, “just plant plants, people!”

It frustrates me to see story after story fail to mention a solution that seems so obvious. But the possibility is real. The habitat restoration community can use this executive order as an opportunity to push for carbon solutions that lift up our own field while restoring the fields around us.

Five state agencies have been working since 2016 on a plan to use plants to sequester carbon, called the Draft 2030 Natural and Working Lands Climate Change Implementation Plan. The most recent draft, spearheaded by the California Air Resources Board, came out in January and details the kind of carbon sequestering management techniques that will both enhance local habitat and draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

Coyote Ridge
In the South Bay, conservationists say rangelands provide both habitat benefits and carbon sequestration.

The plan speaks of, “at a minimum, increasing fivefold the rate of State-funded soil conservation practices, doubling the rate of State-funded forest management and restoration efforts, tripling the rate of State-funded oak woodland and riparian reforestation, and doubling the rate of State-funded wetland and seagrass restoration.”

As of this writing the plan only has 17 public comments and a few of these are from the same people. A plan is just that until it is put into effect. So how do we support this plan, critique this plan so that it will actually reach the scale that reality is calling for, get it funded, and get it implemented? We need to engage with it and we need to find and begin to lobby the policymakers around the state who are forward-thinking enough to write and advocate for bills that will fund plans like this one. Let’s start by reading it.

I feel momentum growing. The 2016 passage of measure AA in the Bay Area set aside $500 million over 20 years for shoreline restoration as a way to mitigate against sea level rise and storm surge in the nine county Bay Area. While this funding still needs to be scaled up — twice as much funding was applied for as was available for the first round of wetland restoration applications — the passage of this measure by 70 percent of voters in all nine Bay Area counties shows that the political will to engage nature-based solutions to climate change is already there. “Wetlands, in particular have some of the highest and most persistent rates of carbon sequestration when compared to other systems,” says Jared Lewis, a senior environmental scientist at Applied Technology and Science, a San Francisco-based environmental consulting firm.

What Measure AA, the draft Natural and Working Lands Climate Change Implementation Plan, Governor Brown’s executive order, and Governor Newsom’s first moves show us, is that the stage is set. We have many arguments to make, the least of which is that this work feels good. It feels good to be saying yes to life, to allowing living things to flourish. Yes is a powerful message politically. Rather than always standing in the way of what we don’t want, let’s also move toward what we do want and bring all our children and family with us.

About the Author

Ildiko Polony is the nursery manager at Literacy for Environmental Justice in San Francisco.