Land use is widely known as an important factor behind climate change. A new paper provides an ambitious roadmap for changes in forest management, agriculture and bioenergy to ensure that global temperature rises stay below the 1.5°C warming target.
Published in Nature Climate Change, the study explores key measures that can halve land sector emissions every decade from 2020 to 2050. Building upon climate models, the study suggests 24 practices that can provide the greatest emissions reductions and other co-benefits.
The authors emphasize the potential of six priority action areas: (1) reducing deforestation; (2) restoring forests and other ecosystems, particularly in tropical countries; (3) improving forest management and agroforestry; (4) enhancing soil carbon sequestration in agriculture; (5) reducing consumer food waste and (6) having one in five people switch to low-meats diets.
Effectively implementing all of these could help us achieve one-third of the required emission reductions. Changes in the sector can also deliver other benefits, including improving biodiversity, enhancing food security, securing freshwater sources, improving air quality and making ecosystems more resilient in the face of climate change. All this makes it unique in its contributions to achieving global sustainability goals.
Implemented properly, the roadmap can help achieve a carbon-neutral land sector by 2040. And while today the land sector is responsible for 11 Gt of CO2 emissions a year, by 2050 it can become a net sink, capturing 3 Gt of CO2 a year.
Participation of the US, the EU, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina and a handful of other countries that contain the majority of the world’s forests and are responsible for a large share of agricultural production would be crucial for achieving the required results. This would require the governments of those countries to implement strong cross-sectoral policies and commit to ending deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices.
It would also require countries that have accumulated significant resources and wealth to support preserving ecosystems in places where people are still struggling to survive. However, the situation is not always that simple, as the example of the Yasuní-ITT initiative with complex overlaps of interests and perspectives demonstrates.
The authors are concerned about the slow pace of action taken by governments. Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the paper comments, observes that “Right now the land can still deliver a lot of benefits, including climate stabilisation. But the longer we wait, the more we ask it to do, and the harder that gets.”
Stephanie Roe, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the paper, remains optimistic about the future “because we have all the tools we need, as well as increasing public pressure and political will to turn things around.”