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UN Report Calls for Transforming Land Practices to Battle Hunger and 'Suffocating Blanket of Climate Emergency'

"There are a lot of actions that we can take now... But what some of these solutions do require is attention, financial support, enabling environments."

amazon fire

Up to 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon results from cattle ranches and soyabeans cultivation while the rest mostly results from small-scale subsistence agriculture. (Photo: Getty Images)

A landmark United Nations report released Thursday warns that land worldwide is under mounting pressure from humans—both exacerbated by and contributing to the climate crisis—which underscores the need to urgently enact more sustainable land practices and curb greenhouse gas emissions from all sources to keep the global population fed and ensure a habitable planet in the future.

"The world must take immediate action to transform the way we use our land—forestry, agriculture, industrial, and urban development—in order to avoid a climate catastrophe."
—Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, NRDC

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. body that assesses science related to the climate crisis. The report's Summary for Policymakers (pdf) was agreed on by world governments at a meeting in Geneva earlier this week and published Thursday.

"Land plays an important role in the climate system," Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III—which focuses on mitigating climate change—explained in a statement. "Agriculture, forestry, and other types of land use account for 23 percent 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."

In other words, when it comes to the human-caused climate emergency land use is part of the problem—and part of the solution.

As Susan Casey-Lefkowitz wrote in a blog post for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Thursday, the SRCCL signals that "the world must take immediate action to transform the way we use our land—forestry, agriculture, industrial, and urban development—in order to avoid a climate catastrophe."

"This is a perfect storm," Dave Reay, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was an expert reviewer for the IPCC report, told The Guardian. "Limited land, an expanding human population, and all wrapped in a suffocating blanket of climate emergency. Earth has never felt smaller, its natural ecosystems never under such direct threat."

As the The New York Times reported, the 107 scientists from 52 countries who authored the SRCCL "found that the window to address the threat is closing rapidly."

A half-billion people already live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming, according to the report.

Climate change will make those threats even worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply. Already, more than 10 percent of the world's population remains undernourished, and some authors of the report warned in interviews that food shortages could lead to an increase in cross-border migration.

A particular danger is that food crises could develop on several continents at once, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors of the report. "The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing," she said. "All of these things are happening at the same time."

In a statement, Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, warned that certain regions of the world are especially at risk because of rising temperatures.

"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," Shukla said. "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."

While the IPCC report's findings are dire, its authors are hopeful that the conclusions will spur global action to improve land management with the dual aims of combating global heating and hunger.

"One of the important findings of our work is that there are a lot of actions that we can take now. They're available to us," Rosenzweig told the Times. "But what some of these solutions do require is attention, financial support, enabling environments."

Casey-Lefkowitz, in her blog post for NRDC, outlined the solutions offered in the report. "To mitigate climate change, save wildlife, and secure our food supply, we need transformative change to our economy and our current practices," she wrote.

The transformative change referenced by Casey-Lefkowitz means:

Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II—which focuses on the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change—explained that "some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others."

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"Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change," said Roberts.

The report emphasizes the necessity of global coordination not only to promote plant-based diets and sustainable agriculture for the sake of the planet but also to address food security, nutrition, and hunger.

Responding to the IPCC's findings about the climate consequences of corporate factory farming and industrial meat production, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement, "Our industrial agricultural system is bad for consumers, bad for family farmers, and bad for our climate."

"We need to reform our agricultural system by ending the strangle-hold a handful of multinational corporations have over our vast food economy in America," added Hauter, whose group is U.S.-based. "It's time to end factory farming, once and for all. At the end of the day, there is nothing more important than clean, healthy food and water, and a sustainable vision for our environment and our future."

The IPCC report also emphasizes the need to stop deforestation and the importance of recognizing and protecting the land rights of Indigenous communities that are fighting—and often risking their lives—to defend their local environments from destructive corporations and governments.

"Finally, the world's top scientists recognize what we have always known. We—Indigenous Peoples and local communities—play a critical role in stewarding and safeguarding the world's lands and forests," a coalition of organizations from 42 countries said in a joint statement Thursday. "We have cared for our lands and forests—and the biodiversity they contain—for generations. With the right support we can continue to do so for generations to come."

Emboldened by the IPCC's acknowledgement, the Indigenous groups issued six demands of global governments, the international community, and the private sector:

  • Significantly scale up recognition of our land and forest rights by increasing support to indigenous, community, and civil society organizations to implement existing laws and advance legislation that recognizes rights. This includes recognition of the customary rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to govern their lands.
  • Secure our right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) as part of a continuous cycle of engagement for any activities taking place on or affecting our customary lands, territories, and resources.
  • Prioritize bilateral and multilateral investments in indigenous- and community-led initiatives to reduce emissions from deforestation, strengthen community-based conservation and restoration efforts, and improve sustainable land use. Find new ways to ensure international finance for climate mitigation and adaptation reaches the communities on the ground who can put it to best use.
  • End the criminalization and persecution of Indigenous Peoples and local communities defending their lands, forests, and natural resources.
  • Support existing partnerships and develop partnerships that allow our traditional knowledge and practical experiences with land and forest management to inform current and future efforts to combat climate change.
  • Recognize and support indigenous and community women's rights to own, manage and control land, forests and resources which are bases for their livelihoods, community well-being, and food security.

Andreia Takua Fernandes, frontline organizer for Indigenous communities at 350.org—which was not part of the joint statement—said Thursday that "although we Indigenous Peoples suffer the effects of climate change before other people and are under constant attack from invaders and even our own governments, we continue to protect our lands and the biodiversity within them."

"We do so for the well-being of our communities, but also of the entire planet, because we know that the land degradation that affects us in Brazil will also impact the lives of people in China, in Africa and elsewhere in the world," she said. "It's key that our voices are heard in the conversation about solutions for the climate crisis and for deforestation, as we have been showing for centuries how true is the message that everything on Earth is connected."

"Continuing investments in fossil fuels and fossil fuel extraction, at this point, equals indirectly starving poor people."
—Mahir Ilgaz, 350.org

Mahir Ilgaz, research and grants coordinator at 350.org, highlighted another takeaway from the report: renewed confirmation that the world must stop using dirty energy sources.

"Unless we start substantially reducing fossil fuel use now and go completely fossil free, the combination of climate change and land degradation will lock even more people into poverty and exposure to climate impacts," said Ilgaz. "The more carbon dioxide and methane we emit now, the higher the risks of breakdown in our food systems, especially in vulnerable areas. Continuing investments in fossil fuels and fossil fuel extraction, at this point, equals indirectly starving poor people."

The SRCCL follows the IPCC's 1.5°C report from October, which called for "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented" reforms to human behavior on a global scale to avert climate catastrophe. A special report on the ocean and the cryosphere in a changing climate is scheduled to be released in September.

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