Exploring nature-based solutions to climate change
Investing in conservation will accelerate decarbonisation
Climate change presents an enormous threat to our lives and livelihoods.
As the challenge to combat climate change intensifies, it’s important that our solutions accelerate decarbonisation to curb emissions. But they must also help to restore the natural environments that will help to sustainably minimise the long-term effects of climate change.
We know we have a significant carbon footprint. In 2021, we set ambitious new goals to accelerate our decarbonisation.
And while reducing scope 1 and 2 emissions at our mines and smelters remains our priority, we need to look at all possible solutions to help us reach our goals.
Especially if some of those solutions offer opportunities to restore and create new natural environments, and work with communities and governments improve their livelihoods and resilience to the effects of climate change.
In April 2022, we launched a new team of specialists focused on nature-based solutions, who will be exploring and investing in high quality projects that implement internationally accepted social and environmental safeguards. As part of this work, we’ll be partnering with host communities and other local stakeholders to learn from them and jointly find ways to improve the resilience and protect biodiversity of land in and around our operations.
Through these projects, we hope to contribute to sustaining communities’ current and future livelihoods, while also contributing to our larger efforts to reduce our footprint.
Theresia (Rio Tinto’s Chief Adviser of Nature Solutions) and Simon (Rio Tinto’s General Manager Nature Solutions), who are leading our nature solutions work, explain how nature-based solutions could help tackle a range of challenges.
What are "nature-based solutions?"
Nature-based solutions – also called natural climate solutions where they help mitigate climate change or reduce carbon emissions – are a range of approaches that focus on developing and maintaining healthy, well-managed ecosystems.
Humans and our environment are closely interdependent, so nature-based solutions leverage this, aiming to foster biodiverse, balanced environments. In turn, these provide essential benefits and services to people, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, securing safe access to drinking water, making air safer to breathe, or increasing food security.
How can nature-based solutions help accelerate the journey towards decarbonisation?
Simon: A wide range of international bodies and consultancies have concluded that nature-based solutions will be one of the key ways to limit warming to less than 2°C.
Nature-based solutions are scalable now and can yield benefits very quickly, while many other solutions being explored aren’t yet scalable, particularly engineering-based ones. If we don't implement nature-based solutions as soon as possible, we risk losing valuable time to ‘turn back the tide’, given climate change will continue to degrade biodiversity and the land’s ability to recover.
At Rio Tinto, we’re lucky to have a very large and varied landholding – around 4 million hectares – and we have a duty of care to effectively manage the natural assets on that land.
Theresia: Humans rely on nature more than we think we do. As we lose functioning ecosystems, nature loses the necessary resilience to support and provide for people. Developing nations and people who directly depend on nature for their livelihoods feel the effects of this change first, but it is increasingly impacting the value chains of developed economies, so urgent action is required by business to halt nature loss and to protect biodiversity.
Why are nature-based solutions so valuable?
Theresia: Natural climate solutions are about more than just carbon credits. Done well, they can build the resilience and socioeconomic independence of host communities while also building our own climate resilience and futureproofing our operations.
Across our landholding, we’re fortunate to have access to a range of environments – deserts in Mongolia; subtropical forests, woodlands and wetlands in Australia, Madagascar and South Africa; grass- and shrubland across the Pilbara in Australia; tundra and peat lands in Canada; and prairie habitats in the US, to name just a few.
Having access to this kind of diversity is incredibly exciting. Many people focus on trees as a carbon mechanism, but grasslands, peatlands, mangroves and wetlands can also absorb and store a lot of carbon and form diverse habitats for flora and fauna.
For example, mangroves can prevent damage when there’s a storm event, and wetlands reduce floodwaters because they act like giant sponges. Forests are like enormous air conditioners, moderating extreme temperatures. Healthy ecosystems also maintain healthy soils and pollinators needed to maintain nutritious food crops.
Simon: And currently, there’s a marketplace for carbon, but the marketplace for broader socioeconomic nature-based benefits, or for maintaining biodiversity, is still emerging. I believe we will be able to get high integrity projects off the ground, just valuing the carbon component of it. But our biggest contribution can then be the fact that because we are a large landholder with access to land and a large balance sheet, we can effectively contribute to the broader discussion about how you value nature and socioeconomics. You can only put a value on them once you have successful case studies that show the impact they've had on biodiversity and on local communities.
What value can we add for local governments and communities?
Theresia: Our present work focuses on honouring agreements that were made as part of acknowledging the impacts that we have on host communities. A lot of what we do is focused on impact mitigation, or resettlement, or compensation plans, but we know we also have a longer-lived (though temporary) land-stewardship role after the ore reserves run out. Acknowledging this stewardship role and helping to address local socioeconomic and conservation challenges beyond our own impacts will result in a positive legacy that extends beyond mining.
There is a significant underinvestment in nature globally, but particularly in some regions where limited resources do not cover the maintenance and protection of biodiversity, so we can add value by contributing these resources. In Madagascar, for example, we hope to work with the Madagascar government – our partner in QMM ilmenite mine – and Asity Madagascar to stop the annual 1.6% loss of the Tsitongambarika (TGK) rainforest and protect the region’s extraordinary biodiversity.
Madagascar has just launched one of the most well-thought-out frameworks to develop offsets, which ensures shared value for not only the State, but the communities that host nature-based solutions. This will not only secure the continued maintenance of the project; it will support community development projects as well.
This is why the framework is likely to be highly effective – because it recognises that offsets cannot come at the expense of host communities; they must go hand-in-hand with improving and developing them. Investment in high quality projects that implement internationally accepted social and environmental safeguards will ensure that the local community benefits, because nature and people are not mutually exclusive.