Global food supplies, species and ecosystem diversity, and the health and safety of populations are all in peril without immediate, wide-ranging shifts in land use, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes in a landmark report released in Geneva last week.
Already, “the climate crisis is damaging the ability of the land to sustain humanity, with cascading risks becoming increasingly severe as global temperatures rise,” The Guardian reports. “Global heating is increasing droughts, soil erosion, and wildfires while diminishing crop yields in the tropics and thawing permafrost near the poles.”
The paper adds that “further heating will lead to unprecedented climate conditions at lower latitudes, with potential growth in hunger, migration, and conflict and increased damage to the great northern forests.” While fossil fuel burning is still the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, land use accounts for one-quarter of the total, half of that from forest destruction and the other half from agriculture.
The Solution: A ‘Revolution’ in Land Use
Climate change “will make those threats even worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply,” the New York Times warns. “Already, more than 10% of the world’s population remains undernourished, and some authors of the report warned in interviews that food shortages could lead to an increase in cross-border migration” as food shortages develop simultaneously on several continents.
“The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” said IPCC lead author Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “All of these things are happening at the same time.”
Those impacts mount if average global warming exceeds 2.0°C. “Going into a world where we are way above 2.0°C has massive implications for the food system and production in particular,” IPCC author Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen told The Guardian. “We get more droughts, more people going without food and who need more disaster relief. It’s a place we don’t want to go.”
“This is a perfect storm,” said expert reviewer Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh. “Limited land, an expanding human population, and all wrapped in a suffocating blanket of climate emergency. Earth has never felt smaller, its natural ecosystems never under such direct threat.” With nearly three-quarters of the world’s ice-free land directly affected by human activity, IPCC lead author Jim Skea “said the land was already struggling and climate change was adding to its burdens,” The Guardian adds.
But there’s a pathway out of that threat, provided that decision-makers take immediate action.
“The IPCC report on land confirms that we are facing a planetary emergency, that the window for taking decisive action is closing fast, and that the costs of inaction will be catastrophic,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. But “while the report paints a bleak picture of what could come to pass, it also points a way forward, including opportunities for immediate action.”
“What the IPCC highlights is that we urgently need a revolution in the way we currently utilize land,” said geographer Anna Krzywoszynska, associate director of the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food. “Food systems today are built not on soil but on the oil needed for chemicals and machinery.”
“The way land is being used and abused is rebounding on us,” agreed Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth UK. “The scientific evidence is clear: political leaders must transform the way land and resources are used, otherwise life on Earth just won’t be possible.”
“This is a crisis of our own making, but it’s a crisis we can solve if we act now,” said Reyes Tirado of the Greenpeace Laboratory at the University of Exeter. “Changing the way we produce food and what we eat will protect our climate and promote food security,” while diverting land from animal grazing and feed could allow forests to regrow.
At the same time, “the land sector alone cannot be a silver bullet,” stressed Katherine Kramer, global climate change lead at Christian Aid. “The need to end the fossil era as soon as possible remains as clear as ever,” and “we need land to be part of the solution, as well.”
The IPCC report points to a nine-fold increase in greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers since the 1960s, growing desertification in parts of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Mediterranean that are home to a half-billion people, and rapid loss of soil. “The report recommends strong action from governments and business, including ending deforestation and enabling new forests to grow, reforming farming subsidies, supporting small farmers, and breeding more resilient crops,” The Guardian states. “Many of those solutions, however, would take decades to have an impact.”
A Stark Choice
“The report, approved by the world’s governments, makes clear that humanity faces a stark choice between a vicious or virtuous circle,” The Guardian notes. “Continued destruction of forests and huge emissions from cattle and other intensive farming practices will intensify the climate crisis, making the impacts on land still worse.”
But “action now to allow soils and forests to regenerate and store carbon, and to cut meat consumption by people and food waste, could play a big role in tackling the climate crisis.” Moreover, “such moves would also improve human health, reduce poverty, and tackle the huge losses of wildlife across the globe.”
“One of the important findings of our work is that there are a lot of actions that we can take now. They’re available to us,” said lead author and Rutgers University professor of human ecology Dr. Pamela McElwee. “What some of these solutions do require is attention, financial support, enabling environments.”
“The way we use land is both part of the problem and also part of the solution,” agreed French climate scientist and working group co-chair Valerie Masson-Delmotte. “Sustainable land management can help secure a future that is comfortable.”
The report puts humanity at a tipping point, where decisions over the next short while will make a decisive difference. Already, “numerous studies show that the high levels of carbon dioxide reduce protein and nutrients in many crops,” The Associated Press reports, citing Rosenzweig. “For example, high levels of carbon in the air in experiments show wheat has 6% to 13% less protein, 4% to 7% less zinc, and 5% to 8% less iron.”
Yet “better farming practices—such as no-till agricultural and better-targeted fertilizer applications—have the potential to fight global warming, too, reducing carbon pollution up to 18% of current emissions levels by 2050.” And “if people change their diets, reducing red meat and increasing plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and seeds, the world can save as much as another 15% of current emissions by mid-century. It would also make people more healthy.”
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said ecologist and IPCC working group co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
“We’re not telling people to stop eating meat,” Smith agreed. “In some places people have no other choice. But it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much.”
One veteran climate hawk pointed to the unintended result when a message on plant-rich diets intended for the world’s wealthiest countries is picked up in a news outlet like the Times of India. “This is the problem when Indian media uncritically reproduce the headline narratives set by Western wires who primarily speak to a European and U.S. audience,” wrote Dharini Parthasarathy, senior communications officer at Climate Action Network-International, in a weekend Facebook post.
“Millions of people in this country live with hunger and suffer from malnutrition. Every day there are land grabs (under the euphemism of environmental clearance) by the fossil fuel corporations, abetted by the ruling government, displacing smallholder farmers and forest communities,” she wrote. “Plant-based diets are already pretty widespread in India because of religious cultural norms and lack of affordability for meat. It’s very easy to find vegetarian food here, and red meat consumption is probably among the lowest in the world. So who exactly is this headline speaking to?”
The IPCC also calculates that food waste accounted for 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Making use of the 25 to 30% of food production that is wasted or lost would free up millions of square miles of land, AP notes.
The report “calls for institutional changes, including better access to credit for farmers in developing countries and stronger property rights,” the Times writes. And in a first for the IPCC, it acknowledges Indigenous knowledge as a key factor in land stewardship. “Agricultural practices that include Indigenous and local knowledge can contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change, food security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and land degradation,” it states.
No Single ‘Silver Bullet’
The report aims for a balance among several land use and carbon sequestration options, from large-scale afforestation to biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), warning that relying on a more limited set of tools will reduce the potential of land use to both reduce atmospheric carbon and help humanity adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“The land report emphasizes that there is no one ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to negative emissions and that, if just one technique were deployed on a vast scale, it could ‘increase risks for desertification, land degradation, food security, and sustainable development’,” Carbon Brief states, in an exhaustive explainer on the IPCC report.
“Strategies to address these issues range from cutting food waste to planting more trees, but each one comes with its own complications, the report notes, often including adverse side-effects that must be taken into consideration,” the explainer notes. “In total, the report considers 40 specific responses to the issues. Eight of these options yielded medium to large benefits for all of the land challenges being considered: increased food productivity; improved forest management; reduced deforestation; increased soil organic carbon content; enhanced mineral weathering; dietary changes; reduced post-harvest losses; and reduced food waste.”
The IPCC concludes that most of those options “can be implemented without competing for available land, including improvements to crop management and increasing the carbon content of soils,” Carbon Brief notes. “Others, such as dietary changes and cuts to food waste, will actively free up land.” And 17 of the options would have no detrimental impact on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or on nature’s contributions to people as defined in the recent global biodiversity report by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Drawing Carbon Out of the Atmosphere
The report focuses considerable attention on the various land-based options for sequestering carbon.
“‘Negative emissions’ are a group of methods that aim to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the land or ocean. They range from the natural-sounding—planting trees, for example—to the technologically advanced, such as using machines to suck CO2 from the air (known as direct air capture, or DAC),” the UK-based publication adds. But “if pursued at scale, most of these techniques would require varying amounts of land—potentially reducing the land left for wildlife and food production.”
The IPCC concludes that “large-scale tree planting and bioenergy production are important tools to limit global warming but could threaten food security,” Climate Home News adds. “With sustainable management, these conflicts can be minimized.” But “left unchecked, global warming itself will damage ecosystems, eroding the capacity of land to support human life, the evidence shows.”
“Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy,” said Pörtner. “But early, far-reaching action across several areas is required.”
Much of the coverage of the report points to the local conditions, choices, and trade-offs that will determine the best uses for the available land in different settings. “In one scenario, use of forestry and land to store carbon causes crop prices to soar 80% by 2050, translating into an extra 80 to 300 million people suffering from undernourishment,” Climate Home notes. “This tension is, however, limited if trees are planted on land unsuitable for agriculture and used to prevent desertification and restore degraded soil. Small-scale planting of native species can also provide a safety net during times of food and income insecurity.”
Governments intent on reducing competition for land can also “crack down on illegal logging in protected areas and better manage existing forests.”
While extensive use of bioenergy and BECCS could put an additional 150 million people at risk of hunger, even as it reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide by several billion tonnes per year, “limiting bioenergy crops to marginal lands could significantly reduce negative effects, potentially even enriching ecosystems and the soils in the process,” Climate Home adds. In the week of negotiations leading up to the report’s release, a group of countries that included Brazil, the United States, Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom hotly contested draft language on the impacts of large-scale bioenergy and forest plantations, while France and Germany “stood firm in the face of attempts to water down high afforestation scenarios,” one observer told Climate Home.
Skea said one key illustration in the final report ended up with “a lot more nuance” on bioenergy. “What was picked up from the previous draft was that the message about bioenergy was almost entirely negative, because the figure assumed that it would be deployed at the scale that would remove at least three gigatonnes of CO2 annually,” he told CHN. “A number of countries quite rightly pointed out that if bioenergy was done properly—you chose the right crops, you regulated it properly, and did it at the right scale—that bioenergy could actually be beneficial.”
Skea added that the centrality of bioenergy in hitting an ambitious carbon target would be reduced by rapid decarbonization in other areas. “It depends on what we do on the other sectors, how difficult that trade-off will be,” he said.
But civil society groups that have been sounding the alarm about BECCS were less sanguine about that option.
The report “sends a stark warning that relying on harmful technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which would take up huge amounts of land, are at odds with our need to improve food security and protect our natural ecosystems,” said ActionAid Climate Policy Coordinator Teresa Anderson. “Rich, polluting countries cannot expect the Global South to give away swathes of farmland to clean up the climate mess.”
“As we clearly cannot afford to lose or destroy ecosystems vital to life, the report effectively paints large-scale bioenergy and BECCS as completely unacceptable and unworkable,” said Climate Action Network Ecosystems Coordinator Peg Putt. Linde Zuidema, bioenergy campaigner at Fern, called on EU governments to “phase out subsidies for bioenergy and focus instead on promoting protection and restoration of forests—which has proven to be positive for nature and people.”Carbon Brief contrasts those cautions with the response from Will Gardiner, CEO of the Drax Group, who saw the IPCC report as confirmation that BECCS “is an essential technology in tackling the climate emergency the world is facing”.