IPCC Report on Climate Change:
Vicious or Virtuous Circle?

Without immediate changes in food production and land use, human’s future livelihood is at stake, warns a new report by the UN’s scientific body on climate change. A focus on sustainability in agriculture, reforestation and a change in human diets towards vegetarianism are crucial to keep global warming well below 1.5°C — a tipping point with disastrous consequences for our climate.

As part of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 107 experts from 52 countries gathered the latest scientific evidence about desertification, land degradation and food security over the last two years. Their findings are concluded in a Special Report on Climate Change and Land, presented on August 8, 2019 in Geneva. It will serve as the basis for upcoming climate negotiations such as the Santiago Climate Change Conference in December.

Sustainable Land Use against Degradation

At the moment, 72% of the planet’s ice-free surface is exploited by humans. And the numbers keep rising: according to the report, soil is currently being lost more than 100 times faster than it can be formed in ploughed areas. Unsustainable land use, like destruction of forests and big cattle herds, makes up almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Percentage of ice-free land. Image Source: Guardian

Soil usually serves as a carbon sink, preventing CO2 from reaching the atmosphere. Together with forests, they are considered natural allies to tackle climate change: “Natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry,” explains Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. However, when land is degraded, it loses its ability to absorb carbon. Without instant changes in land use and agriculture, climate change will exacerbate — which will in turn increase irreversible damages to land. A vicious circle.

But the IPCC report outlines what can be done to turn it into a virtuous circle instead. Land already used could feed humans in a changing climate while providing biomass for renewable energy. Peatlands, wetland especially suited as carbon sinks, need to be protected from drainage schemes. Empowering women farmers as well as reforms of farming subsidies are further measures.

“But early, far-reaching action across several areas is required,” warns Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. A key message of the scientists is urgency.

Food Security: A Future Without Meat?

When it comes to food security, climate change threatens all four pillars: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking) and stability (disruptions to availability). The scientists paint a particularly grim picture of low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, which will be affected severely.

Additonally, the report confirms that one third of food produced is currently lost or wasted. Since about half of global methane emissions derive from cattle and rice fields, eliminating this loss would improve food security immensely.

Global food losses and food waste (2011). Image Source: DW

Another important policy recommendation in the report is to reduce the consumption of intensively produced animal products, such as meat and dairy. The authors explain that balanced diets featuring plant-based and sustainably produced animal-sourced food “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.” They estimate that by 2050, dietary changes in society have the potential to free up several million square kilometres of land, while reducing global CO2 emissions by up to eight billion tonnes per year.


Impact of different global diets on greenhouse gas emissions. Image Source: nature

But changes will be difficult as it remains an unpopular topic: “There is much more we could do in that space that we are not doing, partly because it is difficult,” said Pete Smith, a senior IPCC author. “You wouldn’t want to tell people what to eat, that would go down badly. But you could incentivise.” A suggestion of the report is to factor “environmental costs into food.” Meat taxes, or subsidized fruits and vegetables are feasible options to reduce meat consumption, previous studies have found.

Caterina Brandmayr, of the Green Alliance thinktank, emphasises: “The key message from the IPCC is urgency: we need to act now to plant new forests, restore our ecosystems, and, yes, to eat less meat.”

Reforestation instead of Deforestation

In August 2019, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon reached its monthly peak since current monitoring began four years ago. A full 1,114.8 sq km were lost. As reported by the government’s satellite monitoring agency, this is equivalent to the area of Hong Kong.

For Claudio Angelo of Climate Observatory, an NGO coalition of environmental groups, the August data comes as no surprise: “The current Brazilian government was elected precisely with the promise of dismantling the policies and governance structures that prevent deforestation, and they are duly delivering on it.”

The authors of the IPCC report call for an immediate end to the clearing and burning of forests. But such a change is impossible without policymakers onboard.

On a more positive note, Ethiopia made headlines in July 2019 by planting more than 350 million trees in 12 hours, within the frame of the “Green Legacy” reforestation campaign by the country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A study by Swiss researchers determined that restoring lost forests could remove two thirds of global carbon in the atmosphere.

The Time for Change is Now

“There is a perceived competition between generating revenues for a country and keeping a healthy environment, but there is no room for these dilemmas anymore in the 21st century,” warns Joao Campari, global food practice leader at WWF International.

The IPCC outlines numerous policy recommendations for goverments to lead the way in fighting climate change. September saw the biggest global climate mobilization in history, with over 7.6 million all over the world striking for climate action.

Societies are ready for change. It is time for our leaders to step up and take action.

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