UN Calls For Change In Land Use To Avoid Climate Emergency

Cattle farming is emission-intensive and often accompanies large-scale deforestation / Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty.

Cattle farming is emission-intensive and often accompanies large-scale deforestation / Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty.

According to the United Nations, our efforts to mitigate climate change will require more than a curbing of emissions. Citing the key findings of a report that will inform upcoming climate negotiations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has today stated that without drastic changes in global land use – from how and what crops we grow to our deforestation practices - our ability to avoid the impacts of global warming will be significantly compromised.

Compiled by more than 100 scientists who examined some 7,000 studies, the report concludes that farming, forestry, and other human land use is responsible for 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius will only happen if we reduce those emissions. “This report really underscores the importance and urgency of lands,” said Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies at the non-profit Conservation International. “What we do to protect and to restore land this generation will affect whether our children, and those they share the planet with, are going to suffer. . . . We can stop fossil fuel emissions tomorrow and still fail if the Amazon is cleared or Sumatra burns.”

Plant-based diets are cited as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and the report recommends a reduction in meat consumption. “We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “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.” It is estimated that by 2050, such dietary changes could free millions of square kilometres of land, and reduce global CO2 emissions by up to eight billion tonnes per year, compared with the status quo.

The report cautions that land must be carefully managed in order to remain productive, to feed a growing world population, avoid the risk of food shortage and the loss of biodiversity. It cites the use of biofuel crops and the creation of new forests as measures with the potential to mitigate global warming.

Concern is also expressed about accelerating rates of deforestation - in Brazil alone the practice has surged 278% in the last year. Protecting ecosystems that are already rich in carbon, like mangrove forests, rainforests and peatlands are key, and planting and restoring forests can also sequester CO2. “Restoration of forests is the only technology that we have for absorbing CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere at scale,” said Turner.

Governments from across the world will consider these latest IPCC findings at a UN climate summit to be held in New York next month. And the next round of climate talks between the parties to the Paris agreement will then take place in December in Santiago, Chile.

“It’s really exciting that the IPCC is getting such a strong message across,” said Ruth Richardson, the Toronto, Canada-based executive director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a strategic coalition of philanthropic foundations. “We need a radical transformation, not incremental shifts, towards a global land use and food system that serves our climate needs.”

Home Page Photos: Mark Hirsch/Getty Images.