A new report from the world’s leading group of climate scientists, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finds that we must dramatically change the way we use land to limit global warming to safe levels by 2030.
The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, authored by 107 experts from 52 countries, explores the relationship between climate change and landscapes across the globe — and what it means for our collective future. It arrives less than a year after the IPCC’s alarm-raising 1.5°C report, which found that the world needs to take urgent, transformative action to avert the worst impacts of climate change beyond 1.5°C degrees warming.
Here are Three Key Themes to Understand:
Although climate change has been viewed as a challenge for future generations, the Special Report finds that impacts are already putting pressure on people and ecosystems. For habitats around the world — from rainforests to grasslands — changing rainfall patterns and temperatures are pushing ecosystems past their limits. This means species that have adapted to particular climates may be at risk of extinction as their habitats change, like the Bramble Cay melomys, the first mammal to go extinct from climate change.
For people, climate impacts on land threaten lives and livelihoods. Dangerous events caused by changing weather patterns, including flooding, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat — like the blistering heat wave that hit Europe this summer — are becoming more common across the globe. Climate change impacts are also undermining food and water security. Across Africa, yields of staple crops like maize, wheat, and sorghum, and a variety of fruits have significantly decreased in recent years because of changing rainfall patterns and drought.
Overall, it is expected that every degree of warming will likely reduce crop yields, productivity, and livestock production globally, while food demand continues to rise. And even worse, hunger and water crises — either caused or exacerbated by climate change — may generate ripple effects across society, leading to poverty, conflict, and migration.
While climate change is causing major changes to land, changes to land are also causing climate change. Currently, human-driven changes to land cause roughly a quarter (23%) of man-made emissions. Activities like agriculture and food production, deforestation, and desertification (when fertile land turns to desert) are some of the biggest sources of climate change on land and some of the biggest barriers to sustainable development. In northern Guatemala, for example, land and soil degradation from deforestation has been reported as a major reason why people are leaving their homes and becoming migrants.
Why do these activities cause climate change? Right now, land serves as a sink for carbon, because healthy ecosystems and soils can absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Between 2007-2016, these sinks removed 28% of total human carbon dioxide emissions from the air — an important barrier to even more severe climate change. However, degraded land does not have the capacity to absorb carbon; it can actually release carbon. And it’s possible that climate change and human activities could damage land to the point where it becomes a net source of carbon emissions. Scientists predict that if more than 40% of the Amazonian rainforest is deforested, we risk passing irreversible tipping points beyond which major rainforests would not survive.
Thankfully, the Special Report is not all doom and gloom; it outlines big solutions that exist right now. We can change the way we use land to create wins for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Reducing emissions from land is essential to meeting our 2030 climate deadline, when global emissions must be reduced by 45%. And doing so in a way that protects, preserves, and restores life on land (SDG 15) can drive progress on other SDGs like zero hunger (SDG 2) and economic growth (SDG 8).
Here are few solutions from the land we need to step up to meet the climate challenge:
- Protecting Ecosystems: Roughly 72% of ice-free land is affected by human activity. Keeping wild areas wild and free from human pressures is crucial for saving biodiversity and drawing down emissions.
- Reforestation and Afforestation: Planting trees on recently deforested land or agricultural lands that were previously forested can restore ecosystems and absorb major amounts of carbon.
- Eating Healthier Diets and Reducing Waste: Being smarter about what’s on our plates can be game-changing for the planet and better for our diets. An additional 1 billion people could be fed if food waste was halved globally. And reducing meat consumption can cut down on the most polluting forms of agriculture.
- Soil Management: Over 2.7 billion people are affected globally by desertification, meaning nearly a third of the world’s population has lost productive lands for farming and for absorbing carbon. Soil management can be applied to desertified soils to an area slightly bigger than Europe, improving peoples’ livelihoods and economic opportunities.
These changes in policy and in behavior work in theory, but to work in practice, they must include a diversity of people, cultures, and places. We need Indigenous communities and local communities, who have extensive knowledge of land and the characteristics of their specific region, to be at the decision table. We need girls and women, who are often on the front lines of impacts, to be on the front lines of solutions. And we need rural and urban communities alike to champion solutions from the land.
While the report shows that people have started a disastrous cycle between land use change and climate change, it’s not too late to stop the cycle.
The choice is obvious. We must manage lands more carefully to solve the climate crisis and protect people and ecosystems everywhere.
One action that the IPCC recommends is to change what’s on our plates: swap out meat for more plant-based foods. While we need collective policy changes, individual actions do add up and send an important message to leaders. Learn how you can take individual action in the UN’s ActNow Campaign.