NCEL Blog

Takeaways from the IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land

November 21, 2019

Region

Federal

NCEL Point of Contact

Clara Summers
Climate and Energy Manager

Contact

Land and climate change are intrinsically connected. Depending on how land is used, it can either exacerbate or mitigate climate change. Land is also where some of climate change’s most serious impacts are felt. For these reasons, the International Panel on Climate Change released the Special Report: Climate Change and Land in August 2019.

This report acknowledges that natural land is at risk due to human pressure and climate change, while also emphasizing that land plays an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. 

The report was prepared by 107 experts from 52 countries, 53% of which were from developing countries. There are four main takeaways from this report.

1) Lands are part of the problem and experience the impacts of climate change

Current land use and degradation is a major contributing factor to climate change. According to the report “Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Land degradation restricts what can be grown and inhibits the lands ability to absorb carbon which exacerbates climate change. At the same time, climate change has led to increased wildfires, hurricanes, soil erosion, changes in rainfall patterns, and many other negative impacts to land. This negative feedback loop between land and climate change shows the significant role land conservation and sustainable management must play in addressing global climate change.

2) Land still does more good than harm

Despite land degradation and deforestation, the world’s landscapes still remove more emissions from the atmosphere than they release. The graph below shows that the world’s lands removed a net 6 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 per year from 2007 to 2016. While that’s nearly equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the United States, it’s a small fraction of the global carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 37.1 Gt (Scientific American). If we continue with our current land use methods then the world’s lands will start to remove less and less CO2 from the atmosphere.

3) Sustainable land use can help combat climate change

As shown above, land has a natural ability to combat climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The report shows the largest potential for cutting emissions from the land sector is from curbing deforestation and forest degradation. In addition, the report found that reforestation along with planting new forests have the greatest potential to improve how much carbon land removes from the atmosphere. Another major step in using our land sustainably will involve large-scale changes to how the world produces and consumes food. This includes sustainable agricultural measures, shifting towards plant-based diets, and reducing food and agricultural waste.

4) Land use alone won’t solve the climate crisis but should play a significant role

There are limitations to how much we can rely on conservation and sustainable land use to mediate the impacts of climate change, the most prominent being food production. The global population is at 7.6 billion and growing. Even with sustainable food production, feeding this population will require a large portion of the world’s land. For this reason, the report is clear that land conservation and sustainable use should be combined with serious efforts to reduce emissions in other sectors such as energy and transportation.

Final Thoughts

The takeaway from the IPCC report is pretty clear: Land conservation and sustainable use is essential to combat climate change. This includes land conservation at the global, national and state levels. There are many options for states that want to take action to conserve land including efforts to expand funding for state lands and wildlife, establishing state parks and wilderness areas, and supporting private land conservation. The report states, “confidence is very high that the window of opportunity – the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries – is rapidly narrowing.” This emphasizes the need to act now to preserve our land and our planet.