Land degradation accelerates global climate change

Desertification or land degradation already affects more than 500 million people in the world’s poorest countries.

London, United Kingdom – Better land management and the consumption of healthier diets can help address climate change, says the first comprehensive study on the interactions linking land and climate systems.

Climate Change and Land, published on Thursday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN agency responsible for assessing climate change science – looks at the role land use can play in contributing to or mitigating global warming.

However, the agency points out that sustainable land use is only one aspect of a strategy that should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. That deal, signed in 2015 by more than 200 countries, aimed to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5C.

“Land is undergoing human pressure, land is part of the solution, but land cannot do it all,” Debra Roberts, one of the authors of the report and cochair of the working group assessing climate effect and adaptation told journalists at a news conference in Geneva.

While land use, including forestry and agriculture, accounts for at least 23 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions, land is also able to absorb nearly a third of emissions from fossil fuels and industry.

We have a lot of choice about the way we manage land in the future, the diet that we eat, and these choices can have large impacts

by Joanna House, IPCC report author

“We need to look at how we can reduce emissions from land and how we can use it to cause carbon removal,” Joanna House, one of the report’s lead authors and a reader in environmental science and policy at the University of Bristol, told Al Jazeera.

“We have a lot of choice about the way we manage land in the future, the diet that we eat, and these choices can have large impacts,” she added. “It’s all about the choices people and governments make moving forward. What is clear is we need urgent action now across all sectors. Not just reducing emissions from land, but from energy, and to avoid the climate impact on land.”


The report addresses land degradation, caused by unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use due to population growth as well as changes in the consumption of food, timber and energy.

“We humans affect more than 70 percent of ice-free land. A quarter of this land is degraded,” said Valerie Masson-Delmotte, cochair of the IPCC’s working group addressing the physical science basis on climate change.

“The way we produce food and what we eat contributes to the loss of nature and ecosystems and declining biodiversity. When land is degraded, it reduces the soil’s ability to take up carbon, and this exacerbates climate change. In turn, climate change exacerbates land degradation.”

More than 500 million people currently live in areas that already experience desertification or degradation, mostly in the world’s poorest countries, which are also the most exposed to food insecurity.

“The countries that are most food insecure are the ones that have done the least to cause the climate problem, and part of that is a question about geography,” Katherine Kramer, global climate lead at Christian Aid, which released a report on climate change and food security earlier this week, told Al Jazeera.

“Certain parts of the world are warming much more rapidly and are much more prone to have extreme weather events,” she continued. “These tend to be in the poorest countries and of course the impact will be greater there because they have the least resilience to be able to cope.”

The IPCC report stresses the importance of reducing food waste. Between 2010 and 2016, global food loss and waste contributed between eight and 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities. Between 25 and 30 percent of the food we produce is currently lost or wasted.

“Underlying this report is the fact that a relatively small number of giant meat, agribusiness and biofuel companies are responsible for the bulk of deforestation and other climate pollution in the agriculture sector,” said Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of global campaign group Mighty Earth.

A shift towards low-carbon diets – eating less meat and more plant-based foods such as grains, vegetables and nuts – is also among the recommendations.

“Changing dietary practices [can help] free up land that we can then use for sustainable food production or carbon mitigation in other ways,” House said.

“We shouldn’t need to make a choice between feeding people and reducing carbon emissions,” House said. “It’s thinking about the way we use land and we govern things around that to give people access to the food they need.”

Source: Al Jazeera