The science is clear: We must radically transform the way we use our land—from how we grow our food to how we manage our forests—to avoid a climate catastrophe.
The call to action comes from the Special Report on Land and Climate Change, the latest report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though we’ve long known that land use has big implications for carbon emissions, this is one of the most comprehensive—and startling—reports on the issue to date. Pulling from 7,000 scientific papers, 107 scientists from 52 countries have now sounded the alarm that we can’t continue business as usual—just as the IPCC did for biodiversity in May and for climate change last October.
The report has its fair share of bad news: predictions of food insecurity and habitat loss alongside skyrocketing global temps. But if you look closely, there’s some good news too: If humans are to blame, humans can get us back on track.
Here’s the Bad News.
We’re exploiting our earth’s resources at a breakneck pace.
The rate of change caused by humans is unprecedented, the report warns. Humans have shaped more than 70 percent of the planet’s ice-free land and degraded a full quarter of it. In the last 200 years, we’ve stripped away a startling one-third of our entire planet’s forest cover. And our land use is now driving the rapid warming of the planet, producing a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. We won’t be the only ones suffering: Land use has already caused up to a 14 percent drop in biodiversity, and one million species could face extinction by 2100.
We’re barreling toward a food crisis.
By 2050, we will need to feed a world population teetering on 10 billion, a stat made scarier when you consider that climate change will make growing food that much harder. Rising temperatures can turn fertile soil into arid desert, shift the growing seasons, increase the number of extreme weather events, and make water more scarce. Many of these systems become positive feedback loops: Climate change leads to more arid soil, which then stores less carbon and contributes to climate change. Degrading the land—through overgrazing, deforestation, and monoculture mega-farms—also strips the soil, reducing crop yields and nutrient density.
Meanwhile, we’re tossing out (way) too much food.
Considering the vast resources required to grow our food—water, pesticides, packaging, transportation, and labor—we simply can’t afford to waste it. If food waste were a country, it would have the third-highest greenhouse gas emissions behind the United States and China. There’s a lot of room for improvement: A whopping quarter of all food goes uneaten globally. In the United States, that number balloons to 40 percent. If we hope to address food insecurity and rising global emissions, tackling food waste must be a top priority.
We’re flattening our forests.
Forests are the planet’s lungs. Each year, they absorb about a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally. In fact, forests soak up twice as much planet-warming carbon as all the currently accessible coal, oil, and gas reserves combined. That makes forests a potent weapon in our fight against climate change. But we’re clearing them at an alarming rate—to make room for more cattle grazing, to sell more toilet paper, or to burn them for fuel.
Here’s What We Can Do About It.
Eat more plants—a lot more.
Meat consumption, which has risen as global poverty has decreased, is a massive driver of emissions and deforestation. Cattle in particular are often grazed on cleared lands, serving a one-two emissions punch. And much of the world’s farmland is used to grow feed for livestock. Not only do ruminant animals release the potent greenhouse gas methane as part of their natural digestive processes, but clearing forested land releases stored carbon into the environment. The report suggests shifting toward a plant-based diet to reap significant climate benefits, particularly in high-income countries where the most meat per-capita is eaten. Remember: Not everyone has to go vegan. Every step toward reducing meat consumption (particularly of beef) is a win for the climate—and large-scale food providers can make the biggest impact by shifting their policies and buying less meat.
Return to regenerative farming practices.
Intensive agriculture—think industrial, monoculture farming—is a major contributor to the erosion and depletion of soil. But we can shift back to regenerative farming practices—like planting cover crops, diversifying crop species, and reducing tillage—to improve soil quality. Healthy soil not only allows us to grow higher quantities of nutrient-dense food but also plays a significant role in the sequestering of atmospheric carbon. As the report suggests, we should follow the lead of Indigenous and local communities who have been maintaining the land sustainably for thousands of years.
Keep our most carbon-dense forests intact.
Deforestation of our most important carbon sinks continues on, unchecked. Each year, about one million acres of Canada’s massive old-growth boreal forest is clearcut, responsible for annual emissions equivalent to 5.5 million vehicles. And three football fields’ worth of the Amazon in Brazil are lost every minute. Not only do we need to drastically slow the pace of industries like logging, governments need to take responsibility and accurately account for these carbon contributions. The biomass industry, for example, which chops down trees to burn as fuel, is far from carbon-neutral, but many governments (including the United States’) continue to falsely view it as a climate-friendly renewable.
Approach land management like a puzzle.
Planting a billion trees, while a seemingly noble strategy to soak up atmospheric carbon, isn’t a solution unto itself. The report rightfully points out that land management is a delicate dance. If we plant too many trees, we may not have enough agricultural land to feed our growing population or the right ecosystem balance to sustain existing wildlife. Instead, we must work to restore natural ecosystems, be they wetlands, sagebrush, or rainforest, while improving the quality and productivity of our farmlands. We should also set ambitious conservation targets—like protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030—which will not only mitigate climate change and its impacts but also preserve wildlife habitat for our fellow wildlife species in crisis.
As far as future-building strategies go, Greta Thunberg’s passionate optimism beats Jonathan Franzen’s placid pessimism any day.
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Why we must stop logging companies from destroying the boreal in order to avoid catastrophic warming of our climate.
Valérie Courtois is guiding an indigenous-led conservation strategy for one of the world’s last great forests.
Cover crops, an age-old farming strategy, can help boost soil health, protect water sources, and create fields that are more resilient to climate change.
Not only is this forest home to millions of indigenous people and endangered species, it’s also indispensable in helping us win the fight against climate change.