Emission reduction plans are too reliant on limited land space, report finds
Countries will collectively need a total of 1.2 billion hectares of land to fulfil the promises laid out in their official climate plans as part of global efforts to meet Paris Agreement goals, according to a study.
A global group of researchers found that countries intend to use 633 million hectares of total land area for carbon capture tactics such as tree planting, which would gobble up land desperately needed for food production and nature protection.
Only 551 million hectares accounted for in pledges would restore degraded lands and primary forests, which store carbon, regulate rainfall and local temperatures, shelter plants and animals as well as purify water and air.
In some cases the land belongs to indigenous people, whose land rights are found to be critical to reducing climate change due to their stewardship of forests.
“Land has a critical role to play in global efforts to keep the planet cool, but it’s not a silver bullet solution,” said Kate Dooley, the lead author of ‘The Land Gap Report’ and a researcher at the University of Melbourne.
“This study reveals that countries’ climate pledges are dangerously over-reliant on inequitable and unsustainable land-based measures to capture and store carbon. Clearly, countries are loading up on land pledges to avoid the hard work of steeply reducing emissions from fossil fuels, decarbonising food systems and stopping the destruction of forests and other ecosystems.”
Researchers examined official climate plans and public statements, including Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which countries submitted to the United Nations as part of the Paris Agreement, to calculate the total land area set aside for carbon removals.
The analysis demonstrates the chasm between governments’ reliance on land for carbon mitigation purposes and the role that it can realistically play due to competing needs and in light of human rights.
“Faced with a global land squeeze, we must think carefully about how we use each and every plot of land,” said Dooley. “Yet countries treat land like a limitless resource in their climate plans. Using a land area equivalent to half of current global croplands for tree planting simply won’t work, particularly when the evidence in front of us shows the fragility of tree planting to worsening climate impacts like fires and droughts.”
The researchers argue that the most problematic climate plans involve transforming land currently used for other purposes, such as food production, into tree-covered areas, such as monoculture plantations.
The report lays out how countries – as well as companies seeking to deliver on zero-carbon pledges – could reorient their climate plans towards these three goals.
They want climate plans to prioritise the protection of forests and other ecosystems, as well as focus on restoration and sustainable land use.
Protecting standing forests should be the first priority, as they already remove a third of the carbon emissions added to the atmosphere each year, the report said. The study outlines the actions countries can take to achieve this, which include, among other measures, safeguarding all primary forests and including the full cost of logging in the price of wood.
“There are no shortcuts. We can’t continue cutting down standing forests if we hope to keep the planet cool”, said Heather Keith, a report co-author and professor at Radford University. “Primary forests are an order of magnitude more effective than plantations for storing carbon, making them the best option for slowing global climate change. Furthermore, protecting and restoring forests is essential for solving the overlapping biodiversity, climate change, social justice and zoonotic disease crises”.
The food and agricultural systems should also be reformed by using methods such as implementing agricultural practices that use the land more sustainably, based on biologically diverse systems, called agroecology, the report said.
These practices, which include crop rotation and increasing soil organic matter, should also benefit food security, nutrition, health and well-being, livelihoods and biodiversity. They also control pests, buffer extreme temperatures and store carbon.
Finally, the report recommends tighter monitoring of corporate pledges which are often “unrealistically reliant” on land to achieve climate goals. A recent study by Oxfam found that net-zero claims from Total Energies, Shell, Eni and BP alone would require 70 million hectares of land by 2050.
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