Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including land and food, was the focus of a new report released Thursday from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
IPPC’s "Special Report on Climate Change & Land" explores the relationship among climate, people and land in a warming world. It warns that climate change is placing additional stress on land, thus increasing degradation, biodiversity loss and food insecurity.
The report shows that better land management can contribute to tackling climate change, but is not the only solution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2ºC, if not 1.5°C, IPPC said.
The "Climate Change & Land" report shows that the world is best placed to tackle climate change when there is an overall focus on sustainability.
“Land plays an important role in the climate system,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. “Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry.”
The report highlights the synergies and trade-offs inherent in land choices. It also shows how managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change, Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, said.
“Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required -- also for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity,” he said.
The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking) and stability (disruptions to availability).
“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines – especially in the tropics – increased prices, reduced nutrient quality and supply chain disruptions,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. “We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.”
The report points out that about one-third of food produced is lost or wasted. Causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries as well as between regions. Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security, IPPC stated.
Policies outside the land and energy domains, such as on transport and environment, can also make a critical difference to tackling climate change. Acting early is more cost effective because it avoids losses, the panel said.
“There are things we are already doing. We are using technologies and good practices, but they do need to be scaled up and used in other suitable places that they are not being used in now,” Panmao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I, noted.
“There is real potential here through more sustainable land use, reducing over-consumption and waste of food, eliminating the clearing and burning of forests, preventing over-harvesting of fuelwood and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thus helping to address land related climate change issues,” he said.
The report finds that there are ways to manage risks and reduce vulnerabilities in land and the food system.
Risk management can enhance communities’ resilience to extreme events, which has an impact on food systems. “This can be the result of dietary changes or ensuring a variety of crops to prevent further land degradation and increase resilience to extreme or varying weather,” IPPC said.
The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said the IPPC report should serve as a wake-up call for agriculture on the role it plays in climate change. WWF said unlike other contributors to climate change, food can be produced in ways that don’t just minimize new emissions but can actually reduce existing emissions.
“We must address food production and supply chains in a world with growing demand. Agriculture is a major driver for land conversion and degradation and must be part of the solution if we’re going to keep our climate stable and our planet viable,” said Melissa D. Ho, WWF senior vice president, food and freshwater. “How we approach the next decade will not only affect future climate scenarios but will also impact the fate of food production itself -- and our ability to feed the future billions -- as there are inextricable links between global warming and agricultural productivity. We ignore the limits of nature at our peril.”
In an online post, WWF stated, “In the past 10 years, we’ve seen lots of commitments from stakeholders, especially corporations, to improve practices for more sustainable agriculture. For the next 10 years, we need to see action. There’s still time to limit the impacts of climate change and prepare for what’s ahead, but we must act now to build efficient and resilient food systems that can feed the planet without hurting our climate – and ourselves -- in the long run.”
Solutions from the Land, a not-for-profit corporation focused on land-based solutions, said the report confirms the vision it has been advancing for years: that working lands can offer the keys to a more sustainable existence.
"The IPCC land report released today recognizes the near-term solutions that well-managed farms, ranches and forests can deliver at scale to combat climate change," said Solutions from the Land co-chair Fred Yoder, a farmer from Ohio.
The report makes clear that there are no "silver bullet" resolutions to the challenges posed by a changing climate. While there may be some trade-offs -- as there are in every endeavor worth pursuing -- if changes are made correctly, the nation's lands can be a major solution platform for producing food, feed, fiber, energy and a host of ecosystem services.
"Farmers need to be able to focus on their capacity to feed the world. Society needs to focus on the will to feed everyone," Solutions from the Land co-chair AG Kawamura said. "Shifting from food to feed to fuel will let us utilize what might otherwise be 'waste' when production efforts fall short. Our diversity is the toolkit that maintains the capacity needed to meet our production and sustainability goals."
Protein industry attacked
As typically seen in recent years, the agriculture industry -- and livestock production, in particular -- has been the bull's-eye of criticism for contributing to climate change.
GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition), an initiative of the U.K., the U.S. and the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), said collective diets need to more sensitive to the environmental impact.
In a statement, GODAN executive director Andre Laperrière suggested that consumers avoid “mass-produced, resource-intensive and land-pollutant foods such as avocados, palm oil and red meat.”
Laperrière also suggested that more should be done to protect natural habitats and prevent large-scale natural destruction (like in the Amazon rainforest), improve crop varieties and engage in ago-forestry (instead of cutting down forests to farm).
Food & Water Watch claimed in a release that global climate change is “being driven, in part, by corporate factory farming and industrial meat production.”
Frank Mitloehner, animal science professor and air quality specialist in cooperative extension with the University of California-Davis department of animal science, testified at a Senate Agriculture hearing in May. He said professors Robin White and Mary Beth Hall, in imagining for a moment that Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, demonstrated in 2017 that such a scenario would lead to a reduction of a mere 2.6% in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the U.S., and subscribing to Meatless Mondays would bring about only a 0.3% decrease in emissions. That is “a measurable difference, to be sure, but far from a major one,” Mitloehner said.
In addition, an all plant-based diet would produce more calories, but it would be lacking in terms of nutritional value.