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September ‘19 Editorial Comment: Report lays bare link between land use and climate

September ‘19 Editorial Comment: Report lays bare link between land use and climate

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees C can only be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including land and food.

The report shows that better land management can contribute to tackling climate change but is not the only solution.

For the coffee and cocoa trades, the most obvious issue associated with land and climate is deforestation. Addressing deforestation and making better use of other ‘natural climate solutions’ is crucial to mitigating climate change. We need to change how agriculture works, and change farming practices to be more environmentally sustainable. That means that farmers need to be adequately remunerated for the crops they grow. But acknowledging the links between deforestation, land degradation, food security and climate change is not enough. We need to keep moving towards a more sustainable agriculture system and do so more quickly than we are at the moment.

The UN report highlights the importance of land management if the world is to have any chance of keeping climate change within tolerable limits. The cocoa and chocolate industries have stepped up to the challenge of ending the destruction of forests, and have joined with producer governments to pledge to no further conversion of forest land, and to commit to the phased elimination of illegal cocoa production and sourcing in protected forest areas, but how quickly change will happen is unclear. In line with the recommendations of the IPCC report, the industry is scaling up investment in improved land management, agroforestry, and climate-resilient production techniques, but much more needs to be done.

C&CI’s regular contributor Dr Peter Baker said the IPCC report is clear about the extent of the effect that the global food system has on climate: estimates vary between 21 to 37 per cent of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. More than this, it also documents the magnitude of land degradation, due both to unsustainable farming practices and climate change – land temperatures are now 1.4°C higher than the preindustrial era, half a degree more than the global figure which includes oceans.

As highlighted above, the largest potential for reducing agriculture-related emissions is through reduced deforestation and degradation. The report also recommends a shift towards plant-based diets and reduced food and agricultural waste. Specific commodities are not covered in detail, although coffee and cocoa are both mentioned in respect to their agroforestry potential. The authors of the report are aware however that current field data indicates contrasting outcomes, which require field-scale research programmes to inform agroforestry system design, species selection and management practices.

“Here we reach the nub of the problem,” Dr Baker said. “The report is about the science and does not cover the specifics of how humanity can fund and rapidly research and implement solutions on a massive scale. The success of industrial agriculture has been that it works in a similar fashion across scales with solutions to problems that come out of a bag or bottle. Its failure has been the massive externalities that have been accumulating in the environment to the point that they can no longer be ignored.”

What the report calls for is to plug knowledge gaps that are ‘due in part to the highly contextual and local nature of land and climate measures and the long time periods needed to evaluate land use change in its socio-economic frame.’ How this can be achieved, how much it would cost and who will pay for it, remain unsaid – and to be fair it was clearly not the remit of the report to do that.

Undoubtedly, governments will have to play a leading role, but the level of response needed is completely at odds with what Dr Baker described as the neoliberal  government-lite’ view of the world that has predominated over the past generation. This still prevails in many countries where electorates are now widely disenfranchised and hence unwilling to accept that, for instance, they must eat significantly less meat. 

The report therefore tacitly implies that nothing short of a revolution is required, but it is difficult to see how present political structures can achieve this. The situation recalls the prophetic words of Kurt Vonnegut nearly 30 years ago: “We’ll go down in history as the first society that wouldn’t save itself because it wasn’t cost-effective.”

This Editorial comment  first appeared in the September’19 issue of C&CI. Click on subscribe now if you wish to read more informative articles in the current and future issues of C&CI.

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