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Why the land use sector will be key to meeting climate change targets

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By Gert-Jan Nabuurs

· 6 min read

  • The world is currently not on track to meet the target of keeping global temperature rise to under 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels.
  • The land use sector will be key to meeting this target, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
  • However, measures to mitigate the impact of climate change in the land use sector will also need to be met with emission cuts elsewhere.

The land use sector will be vital in meeting globally-agreed climate targets, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

On 4 April, Working Group III published the last of its three reports within the sixth assessment cycle – ‘Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change’.

It highlighted measures that need to be undertaken to achieve climate mitigation targets and the potential obstacles along the way.

Here are the key messages from the report, particularly in regards to land use.

1. World behind on tackling climate change

We are not on track to stay to meet the target of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5ºC, as agreed at the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. We are already very close to 1.5ºC and emissions continue to rise globally.

Emissions of deforestation have come down, but emissions of methane (from cows) and nitrous oxide (manure) continue to rise. Emissions in the energy, transport and housing sectors also continue to increase.

The pledges that countries have made in their Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) are just enough to slow down the growth of emissions, but we are still on the path of a temperature rise of between 2.2ºC and 3.5ºC in 2100. To stay below 1.5ºC, immediate and very large emission cuts are necessary.

By 2030, the emissions must have halved to achieve this and we all know how difficult that will be. The land use sector will play a very important role in meeting this aim.

2. Why the land use sector is so vital

Land use is very important because it accounts for 13-20% in total emissions, but especially because of its ability to sequester carbon, as a carbon sink. As such, the land use sector is regarded in all scenarios as crucial to achieve net zero by 2050.

The sinks that the land use sector can and must generate are crucial to compensate for emissions that other sectors, like the air and heavy duty transport industries, will still emit.

The land use sector is the first that itself could be carbon neutral by 2035. In addition, sequestration is a very effective measure, because it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere. Green plants are the only things that can do this and are thus be uniquely able to lower concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

3. How much land use can contribute

The mitigation potential of a variety of land use related options, at costs below $100/tonne CO2, is 8-14 billion tonne CO2 per year. About half of this potential is very cheap (<$20). The largest share of this economic potential comes from conservation, improved forest and agricultural land management and restoration of forests and other ecosystems (peatlands).

Improved and sustainable crop and livestock management, and carbon sequestration in agriculture and agroforestry can contribute a 1.8-4.1 billion tonne per year reduction.

Demand-side and material substitution measures, such as shifting to sustainable healthy diets, reducing food loss and waste, and using bio-materials, can contribute 2.1 billion tonne CO2 per year reduction.

The improved and expanded use of wood products sourced from sustainably managed forests also has potential through the allocation of harvested wood to longer-lived products, increasing recycling, concrete and steel material substitution and bioenergy.

New technologies for material use will play a large role as well. For example, cars made out of nanocellulose or circular wood-based textiles with a five-times lower carbon footprint than oil-based polyester or engineered wood products, such as cross laminated timber (CLT), are an effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

4. How land use can tackle climate change

It is clear from the IPCC report that managed lands play a crucial role in maintaining carbon sinks as well as providing renewable resources. Protection areas are needed, as well as feeding a growing global population with food and renewables – especially if we cannot use so much fossil products in the future.

The chapter concludes that a sustainable intensification of agriculture is needed, as well as adoption of climate-smart forestry. This active management aimed at maintaining and strengthening sinks – with co-benefits for biodiversity, Indigenous peoples, water supply and so on; adaptation of forest to climate change; as well as continuous supply of food, renewables and substituting in other sectors, is a key outcome of the IPCC chapter.

The many measures vary as to where they can be implemented. In some regions, land is cheap for reforestation but governance may be weak, while in others, sustainable intensification and improvement of agriculture will be needed. Elsewhere, deforestation needs to be halted and turned into a sustainable forest management sector for which indigenous peoples or forest owner cooperatives are the best way to operate. All these options need to be mobilized.

Many options have co-benefits but those that compete for land and land-based resources can pose risks when executed at very large scale and or are poorly implemented. The scale of benefit or risk largely depends on the type of activity undertaken, and mode of operation.

So far, $0.7 billion a year is estimated to have been spent on land use-related mitigation. This is well short of the more than $400 billion a year that is estimated to be necessary to deliver the global mitigation effort in the land use sector envisaged in deep mitigation scenarios. This estimate of the global funding requirement is also smaller than current subsidies provided to agriculture.

Making this funding available would mainly require a change in flows of money and determination of who pays. Often the costs are opportunity costs, such as lost potential income. A gradual redirection of existing agriculture and forestry subsidies would greatly advance mitigation.

Effective policy interventions and national investment plans as part of NDCs specific to local circumstances and needs are also urgently needed. The NDCs concerning the land use sector are currently are far too vague, although the recent large interest of the private sector to invest in agriculture and forestry is promising.

5. Land use is not the only solution

Land use cannot be seen as a separate sector. It is integrated in the current IPCC report into all other sectors through provision of residues and renewables – for example, for biofuels to transport, buildings, energy and industry.

The land use chapter recognizes that this sector is critical in achieving the net zero, but can only contribute up to 15% of the solution.

However, the sector alone cannot solve the whole climate change crisis. Next to measures in the land use sector, strong emissions reduction cuts will always be needed.

This article is also published by the World Economic Forum​. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Gert-Jan Nabuurs is professor European forest resources at Wageningen University and Research. His expertise is European scale forest resource analyses, forest carbon sequestration and adaptation under climate change. He is IPCC Coordinating lead Author in the Sixth Assessment Report for Agriculture and Forestry.

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