We use almost three quarters of the world’s ice free land and how we use it affects our climate reality. Land use either combats climate change or exacerbates it.
This report focused on how we can improve our land management to prevent slow the world’s warming.
Balancing Carbon Sinks and Sources
Between 2007 and 2016, 21-37% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions came from agriculture, forestry, and other land use. These emissions could be balanced by precious carbon sinks that absorb CO2 by natural processes like photosynthesis.
The problem is current land use creates a dangerous feedback loop.
IPCC researchers are especially concerned about the Amazon, a rainforest that provides 20% of the air we breathe and is currently on fire. These fires are part of the larger deforestation crisis happening under pro agribusiness Brazillian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Scientists warn the Amazon is at a tipping point where it will no longer be able to sustain its own ecosystem. This is a big problem because deforestation not only emits carbon, but also takes away that carbon sink that balances our agro activities.
Another important carbon-rich lands that must be protected are peatlands and marshes. Though peatlands make up only 3% of the Earth’s surface but store up to 42% of all soil carbon. But they’ve frequently been drained for industrial or agricultural development.
If we continue our current land use patterns, carbon sources will soon outweigh carbon sinks and will push the world to even more dangerous temperatures.
But we must find a way to sustain livelihoods alongside habitats. This means investing in sustainable agriculture.
Cows as a Culprit
A warming world and growing population brings great risk of a food crisis.
In the past 50 years land use for agriculture has intensified (intensive agriculture means high capital and labour for small areas of land) to match a growing population and growing food demand.
Of this growing demand for food, demand for beef continues to go up and is the most harmful. More meat means more land cleared for livestock, leading to deforestation. More livestock translates to more emissions, both from cows burping up methane as well as industrial factors like processing and transport.
All this rising demand for meat and dairy means we’re using land to produce CO2 instead of rid the air of it. Of all animal products, beef and dairy weigh heaviest on land, emissions, and water resources they take to produce.
Another agricultural practice warming our world is nitrogen-based fertilizer. If used excessively this runs off into rivers, lakes, and oceans. While OK for our domesticated crops, runoff can spread into different ecosystems, creating a nitrogen overload that kills fish, takes nutrients out of soil, and harms nearby biodiversity.
Again a loss for natural carbon sequestration.
The report encourages policymakers to incentivize regenerative agriculture practices, which reduces soil erosion and keeps carbon in the ground.
Some smart people are looking for ways to engineer ourselves out of this problem. People are looking into optimizing feed to improve the cow’s health, encourage greater milk production, and reduce methane emissions. Other scientists are looking to grow beef in a lab.
Last year the World Resource Institute released 21 tips on feeding a projected global population of 10 billion population sustainably. It included some changes suggested in the IPCC report.
Energy Land Use
Humans also rely on land for energy.
Right now extracting coal, oil, and natural gas from the ground is hugely disruptive to ecosystems and releases greenhouse gases into the air even before transport and burning.
First generation biofuel from crops like sugar and corn were initially suggested to replace fossil fuels. However this means we’d be taking over food land and converting it to energy land.
The environmental impact required to transition fields from foods to first generation biofuels, called “land use shift,” is now recognized to be almost environmentally worse than to remain on fossil energy.
In our search for a more sustainable future we must only consider sustainable and equitable options that will not pressure land use change or cause food insecurity. For this reason Flightnook only backs innovative 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation biofuels for airplanes as means for a responsible transition.
What Can Individuals Do?
Climate change is already impacting people:
July 2019 the world was 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels
Sea ice in the Arctic was at a record low in July 2019
This IPCC report was one of the first reports proposing a major shift towards vegan and vegetarian diets to lessen land pressure from agriculture. If everyone on Earth adopted a “plant based diet” we’d have the capacity to reduce GHG emissions from food systems by as much as 3.4 gigatons per year by 2050.
We waste a quarter of the food we produce. The solutions to this problem need to match their corner of the world. Food waste in developing countries is largely due to supply chain issues (food loss) whereas in the Western world it is typically due to consumer waste.
Consider small changes in your lifestyle, like taking one less flight a year, or lowering your footprint by contributing to cleaner fuels.
Civic involvement is also key to push politicians and industry towards a more sustainable future.
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