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Unplanned and relentless land-use change is driving us towards a climate catastrophe | Image: IBTimes

IPCC Special Report on land: Climate catastrophe unavoidable without effective land management, overhaul of food system

An urgent overhaul of land management, including agriculture and food systems, is imperative if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided – that was the weightiest takeaway from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report titled ‘Climate Change and Land’, which was released today in Geneva, Switzerland. The report, co-authored by 107 experts from 52 countries, is part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment cycle and has been prepared to address the links between climate change and land-based ecosystems, and to explore how land-use can be modified to increase sustainability and reduce emissions. It also lays out several developmental and growth trajectories for the coming decades.

The high cost of human activity

The report notes that humans affect over 70% of ice-free land on Earth, a third of which has been subject to degradation linked to human activity. According to one study mentioned in IPCC’s assessment, ecosystem services from the world’s terrestrial systems are approximately equivalent to global Gross Domestic Product when evaluated annually. These services include all freely available benefits from nature such as food, genetic diversity, climatic and hydrological regulation, disaster risk reduction etc.

GHG emissions
An estimated 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (2007-2016) derive from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).

Unsurprisingly, climate change, through regional impacts ranging from extreme precipitation to drought and record-breaking heatwaves, has exacerbated land-degradation, particularly in low-lying coastal areas, river deltas, drylands and in permafrost areas. Even though satellite observations show net vegetation gains over the past three decades, the annual area of drylands in drought has increased, on average by slightly more than 1% per year between 1961 and 2013. In 2015, about 500 million people, mostly from Asia and Africa, lived within areas that experienced desertification between the 1980s and 2000s. “In a future with more intensive rainfall, the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However, there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases, degradation might be irreversible,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

India herself is no stranger to the devastating impacts of climate change. The revolving door of extreme weather, droughts and floods in India has stamped the realities of climate change across the sub-continent. While the country has become all too aware of climate change and its debilitating potential, India’s mitigation efforts have centred around energy- increasing efficiency and pushing transition to cleaner sources. Adaptation and mitigation efforts in other sectors, by comparison, have been close to non-existent.

It might not be too much of a stretch to say that the warnings held in the report are perhaps most ominous for India, considering her dependence on land-based livelihoods such as agriculture and her clear vulnerabilities to climate impacts. Analysis of satellite images from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have revealed that around 30% of the country’s landmass spread across more than 25 states is undergoing degradation and desertification. To make matters worse, India’s water use, especially in agriculture, is riddled with inefficiencies that are driving up water scarcity and drought risks, as stated by NITI Aayog in its report ‘Composite Water Management Index’ published earlier in 2018.

Food demand
Increases in production are linked to consumption changes.

In India and other vulnerable regions, the damaging effects of increased dryness and changes in precipitation patterns, including extreme events, on food security have become visible as yields of major food crops and growth rates of livestock have already started registering declines. “Land is central to the fight against the climate crisis and hunger. Industrial agriculture, deforestation and increasing weather shocks are destroying the land we depend on for food, with the world’s poorest hit the hardest,” says Aditi Sen, a senior climate policy advisor at Oxfam.

Land-use change, land-use intensification and climate change have contributed to desertification and land degradation.

Land management vital to tackle climate crisis

The links between land and climate are much more profound than the one-way interactions of climate impacts. Land carries perhaps the most vital variables in the climate equation as it both churns out and sucks back in massive volumes of GHGs, thus simultaneously acting as both source and sink for GHGs. According to IPCC’s assessment, Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) activities accounted for around 13% of CO2 (5.2 ± 2.6 GtCO2), 44% of methane (CH 4), and 82% of nitrous oxide (N 2O) emissions from human activities globally during 2007-2016. This accounts for approximately 12GtCO2eq of emissions annually or about 23% of the net anthropogenic GHG emissions. This proportion goes up to 37% if the entire food production system is considered. Simultaneously, land is also responsible for sequestering 11.2 GtCO2 each year through natural responses to human-induced environmental change. Together, terrestrial ecosystems are estimated to be sucking out 6.0 GtCO2 every year between 2007 and 2016.

A solution riddled with uncertainty

While the importance of land to combating climate change cannot be understated, projecting future behaviours is riddled with uncertainty due to how environments at different scales will respond to climate change. With increasing warming, climate zones are projected to further shift poleward in the middle and high latitudes. In high-latitude regions, warming is projected to increase disturbance in boreal forests, including drought, wildfire, and pest outbreaks. In tropical regions, under medium and high GHG emissions scenarios, warming is projected to result in the emergence of unprecedented climatic conditions by the mid to late 21st century, which will further influence emissions regionally and globally.  

The difficulty in anticipating how land will influence emissions is borne out of the great variability in how future net increases in CO2 emissions from vegetation and soils due to climate change will counteract increased removals due to CO2 fertilisation and longer growing seasons. “The balance between these processes is a key source of uncertainty for determining the future of the land carbon sink,” notes the report.

The area of greatest concern according to the assessment is nutrition and ensuring the stability of food systems. While current warming of about 0.87°C is associated with moderate risks, from increased dryland water scarcity, soil erosion, vegetation loss, wildfire damage, permafrost thawing, coastal degradation and tropical crop yield decline, these risks are projected to become increasingly severe as temperatures increase. At 1.5°C warming, risks are likely to extend to instability in food systems, which will likely be exacerbated as temperature continues to climb and frequency of extreme weather events increases.

Risks to humans and ecosystems from changes in land-based processes as a result of climate change

“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,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. “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,” he said.

The IPCC projects scenarios for five separate pathways (SSP1-5) for the century to describe various combinations of population growth, income growth, trade and technological progress. While demand for food, feed, and water increase under all projections, scenarios that describe conditions of moderate population growth with a continuation of technological and economic trends (SSP2) show significant increase in food prices by mid-century. For food security, the transition from moderate to high risk occurs for global warming between 2.5°C and 3.5°C in SSP1 (low population growth, increased income, reduced inequality, resource-efficient economy) and between 1.3°C and 1.7°C in SSP3 (describing high population growth, continued inequalities, resource intensive economy, slow technological change). At current levels of emissions, the world is likely to see 3-4°C warming by the end of the century.

The most vulnerable populations would be those living on drylands as climate change and desertification are projected to cause reductions in crop and livestock productivity, modify the plant species mix and reduce biodiversity. Under SSP2, the dryland population, vulnerable to water stress, drought intensity and habitat degradation, is projected to reach 178 million people by 2050 at 1.5°C warming, increasing to 220 million people at 2°C warming, and 277 million people at 3°C warming.

The dangers of unplanned land management

Interestingly, in a note of caution at a time when plantation and afforestation drives have become the war cry against climate change, the report states that unplanned and unmanaged afforestation could lead to counter-intuitive results that might end up exacerbating climate change impacts. “If applied at scales necessary to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at the level of several GtCO2yr-1, afforestation, reforestation and the use of land to provide feedstock for bioenergy with or without carbon capture and storage, or for biochar, could greatly increase demand for land conversion….While land can make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation, there are limits to the deployment of land-based mitigation measures such as bioenergy crops or afforestation. Widespread use at the scale of several millions of km2 globally could increase risks for desertification, land degradation, food security and sustainable development,” the study states.

What is the way forward?

The way forward, in order to best mitigate climate change, according to the report is to limit afforestation and bio-energy crop plantations to limited areas and integrate with sustainable land management practices, including agriculture. If done right, the total technical mitigation potential from crop and livestock activities, and agroforestry could be as high as 9.6 GtCO2e.yr-1 by 2050 as per the IPCC report. While food waste and losses contributed 8-10% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions between 2010 and 2016, widespread dietary changes could drive a further mitigation potential of up to 8 GtCO2 eq. per year by 2050.

“Farmers are the most powerful advocates of a sustainable future, which includes the protection of nature, soils, water and long-term food security, rather than just maximising yield and short-term profit. We urgently need to act now to deliver a positive impact for wildlife at scale, before it is too late,” says Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.

The India story

Even when it comes to management of forests, the draft amendment to Forest (Rights) Act, which has been seen by experts to alienate forest-dwelling communities from their habitats, has landed the government in hot water. While the government has tried to distance itself from the draft after public outrage, clearances for various infrastructure projects have surged in recent years, as the government continues to expedite approvals.

India failing to effect large-scale changes

While the IPCC report advocates for conservation of water through micro-irrigation and increase soil carbon sequestration, attempts to promote large-scale changes to such effect in India have so far been tepid. India’s largest programme to date, to build resilience to climate change among farmers by promoting sustainable practices and scientifically designed responses to climate impacts, has remained in limbo for over 2 years now after pilot projects were carried out in just 0.002% of India’s villages. A similar story can be told of the millions of farm ponds that were dug between 2015 and 2018 to provide a supplementary source of surface water, but were found to be ill-effective against extreme rains and droughts that have become routine in India.

Micro-irrigation, too, has penetrated just 11% of India’s farmland despite the government’s push as growth continues to be hindered by financial constraints that India’s largely small/marginal farmers are ill-equipped to bear. Worryingly, the overall success of schemes such as KUSUM, under which 2.75 million solar pumps shall be added by 2023, depends on the popularisation of conservation techniques such as micro-irrigation. While solar pumps are greatly effective in reducing power subsidies, increasing energy security and are a progressive step towards cleaner energy, it could lead to increased water stress if riddled with the same inefficiencies seen in Indian agriculture today. Unfortunately, as noted in an expert committee report advising the government on groundwater among others, the convergence and coordination to undertake such transformation has thus far been acutely lacking and must be cultivated imminently for any sustainability to be achieved.

There is hope, still

It is not all gloomy for the country. In a positive step, taking cognisance of the worsening situation regarding land degradation, the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change this week announced that it was in the process of setting voluntary targets for Land Degradation Neutrality under the UNCCD. The need of the hour, according to Anuradha Singh, Director, Desertification Cell, MOEFCC, was to bring convergence between efforts to better utilise resources.

“The most effective principle of rainfed and degraded area development is conservation and efficient use of natural resources. It can best be achieved through watershed development adopting the ridge-to-valley approach. We have today come to 20.45 million hectares of area, which has been treated and brought under the category of protective variation. As of now, we are planning to go for another 62-63 million hectares of land that needs to be treated,” said Umakant, Joint Secretary, Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development in an interaction with journalists after the announcement.

While India might be well on its way to meeting its commitments set in the Paris Agreement, the new IPCC assessment clarifies that it in no way means that India will escape the worst of climate change. Impacts have just begun being felt and in all likelihood, their volume will continue to dial up for the foreseeable future. The writing on the wall for India is clear, if the nation is serious about avoiding catastrophic effects of climate change on an increasingly vulnerable population, it can no longer afford to separate land use, land management and agriculture.