Climate Chaos and Land Use: Act Now or Face Irreversible Losses

Dust was kicked up in the media this summer over the messaging on meat and dairy in the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land Use. Now that silly season is behind us, let’s look at the real dust storms and other consequences of climate chaos addressed in the report. Act now or face irreversible losses, warn the IPCC. The longer we delay mitigation measures, the higher the costs and risks for the functions and services our land ecosystems provide. If we fail to take action, trade-offs are inevitable: plummeting agricultural productivity, permafrost degradation and dried out peatlands. Even with mitigation measures, climate change will inevitably lead to land degradation. If we want to keep warming below 1.5°C, land use must be part of the equation. Our goal should be land degradation neutrality, say the researchers.

In the period 2007-2016, agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) was responsible for almost a quarter of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Methane emissions from AFOLU are on the rise. The main culprits are ruminants and the expansion of rice cultivation, finds the IPCC report. Rising N2O emissions meanwhile are primarily due to nitrogen application on cropland soils, a process plagued by inefficiencies: either too much nitrogen is applied, or it’s badly timed to meet crop demand. Manure is also increasingly to blame, with livestock on managed pastures and rangelands accounting for over half of total anthropogenic N2O emissions from agriculture in 2014.

For now at least, AFOLU can take the credit for a net carbon sink of 29% of total CO2. This carbon sink has an uncertain future due to the rising temperatures associated with climate breakdown. To make matters worse, soil is eroding 100 times faster than it is being formed in a conventional till scenario (10-20 times faster in a no till scenario). The world’s newest deserts are younger than me and are home to some half a billion people.

Back to the land

We urgently need to take massive mitigation measures to salvage what we can of our broken planet. Climate chaos is already here, and so we also need adaptation measures to learn to live with the harsh realities of land degradation, desertification and threats to food security. The IPCC researchers explored pathways to mitigation and adaptation that also combat desertification and land degradation. In weighing up land-based responses to the twin challenges of climate change and land degradation, they factored in the social challenges of food security and sustainable development.

Sustainable land management can deliver across all of these challenges, it turns out. The researchers rate sustainable food production, ecosystem conservation and land restoration as powerful response options. In some cases sustainable land management practices can even reverse the adverse impacts of climate breakdown on land degradation. Soil organic carbon management also has exciting potential, and is applicable across a broad range of land use types. Sustainable forestry management is another promising solution highlighted by the IPCC, along with reducing deforestation and forest degradation.

Land under pressure

Land is a precious resource for preserving ecosystems and biodiversity. But it’s also where our food comes from. How do we square the circle of ensuring food security for a growing world population without blowing our carbon budget – and dealing a deadly blow to biodiversity? Competition for land is a key factor in the IPCC’s assessment. Response options that require land conversion on a massive scale could do more harm than good, warn the researchers. Land access rights are a barrier to many sustainable land management practices: insecure land tenure prevents communities from making changes to land that can advance adaptation and mitigation. On the other hand, response options that reduce demand on land can act as a pressure valve – as well as freeing up space for other response options.

There are a number of land management options that do not require land use change, do not create demand for more land conversion, and are applicable from farm scale to regional level. The most powerful of these are improved management of cropland and grazing lands, improved and sustainable forest management, and increased soil organic carbon content. Some response options can even reduce demand for land. Increasing food productivity is one of these pressure-valve solutions. Changing dietary choices, and reducing food loss and waste – the demand-side solutions we looked at in part 1 of our coverage of the report – also have the potential to reduce demand for land.

IPCC | Climate Chaos and Land Use: Is Livestock a Liability?

The researchers warn that CO2 removal (CDR) technologies are a driver for increased competition for land in this century. Any response option that requires land conversion poses a threat to adaptation if rolled out at too large a scale. Land-based CDR such as afforestation and reforestation, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and biochar – if implemented at an appropriate scale – can deliver positive co-benefits for adaptation, combating desertification or land degradation, and food security. However because these responses can only be applied on a limited share of total land, their scope is limited. Any meaningful mitigation effort will need to remove several GtCO2yr-1 from the atmosphere. If we were to try to tackle this mitigation target by planting forests and capturing carbon at the scale of several million km2 globally, we would actually increase the risk of desertification and land degradation, and jeopardise food security and sustainable development goals.

Challenges and co-benefits

Sustainable land management practices, as well as taking the pressure off land, can also deliver co-benefits in terms of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agricultural practices that incorporate local and indigenous knowledge can overcome the combined challenges of climate breakdown, food security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and land degradation. Bringing female stakeholders to the table can unlock synergies and co-benefits for sustainable land management as well as for food security at household level. Women are often left out of the conversation precisely because they are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate breakdown.

Maximising stakeholder input is one way to help ensure that land is managed sustainably. Capacity building at community level has the power to offset land degradation because local communities are well placed to identify pressure points and inform evidence-based policymaking. Further down the chain, structured feedback processes, especially at community level, can make for more effective decision making and governance.

Institutional roadblocks

As promising as these response options may look on paper, they need policymakers to make them happen. In their summary for policymakers, the IPCC call for an integrated approach to land degradation and climate chaos that will remove the institutional roadblocks to response options, and enable fragmented agencies to work together. For example, the narrow focus of food policy could be broadened to incorporate sustainable land management and poverty eradication. A more far-reaching food policy could seek to reform subsidies, promote an “enabling” trade system, improve access to markets, and secure land tenure. By influencing demand for food, public health policies that promote nutrition and diverse food sources could be a win for sustainable land management and contribute to achieving multiple SDGs.

Land management should be reframed as risk management, and resilience should be the backbone of the policy mix. The researchers urge policymakers to act now to protect vulnerable populations. As the realities of climate breakdown take their toll, it is crucial to provide universal access to early warning systems if those on the climate coalface are to have a fighting chance. Swift action to address desertification, land degradation and food security will deliver high returns on investment, the report predicts.

If want to stay on track as we navigate the climate minefield, the IPCC wagers we set our sights on stopping land degradation in its tracks. Climate chaos is an inherently messy problem. Sustainable land management may well be the closest we have to an elegant solution. 

IPCC | Climate Chaos and Land Use: Is Livestock a Liability?