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Land: a critical resource

IPCC's special report on climate change and land reveals tough land-use choices needed to stem climate crisis
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Land: a critical resource

Protecting and restoring forests and urgently revamping the global food system through dietary change are key solutions to the escalating land and climate crisis, according to a new UN report.

Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2ºC can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its report, released yesterday (08 August).

‘Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land-climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors – 53% – are from developing countries.’

Chair of the IPCC

The report states that since the pre-industrial period the temperature over land has already increased 1.53°C compared with the global average of a 0.87°C increase, taking into account air above ocean and land. The temperature rise is impacting food security and driving desertification and land degradation.

Land degradation

When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon.

This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.

‘The choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts’, said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

‘In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible’, he said.


Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. Drylands and areas that experience desertification are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including drought, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure.

‘New knowledge shows an increase in risks from dryland water scarcity, fire damage, permafrost degradation and food system instability, even for global warming of around 1.5°C’, said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I.

‘Very high risks related to permafrost degradation and food system instability are identified at 2°C of global warming’, she said.

Food security

Coordinated action to address climate change can simultaneously improve land, food security and nutrition, and help to end hunger. The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability).

‘Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines – especially in the tropics – increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions’, said Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.

‘Less Meat = Less Heat’

Ahead of the report’s release, Greenpeace Switzerland activists unveiled a banner outside the UN meeting saying: ‘Less Meat = Less Heat. Climate Action NOW!’

‘Defending and restoring our forests and changing our food system by eating less meat will help turn the climate and biodiversity crisis into new hope for nature and people. Our land and biodiversity is under enormous pressure, as seen by the devastating fires in Siberia. We need to make some hard choices because we cannot use up our land twice and we’re already over-using it.

‘To protect our climate and feed the world demands action now. Governments are now compelled to update and enhance their climate action targets in light of the IPCC’s report.’

Forests and Climate campaigner at Greenpeace Germany

‘The solutions are many’

The IPCC’s special report on Climate Change and Land warned that more than a quarter of land is subject to ‘human-induced degradation’, but multiple solutions can boost both mitigation and adaptation, while also supporting sustainable development goals.

The IPCC added that bioenergy, alone or with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), poses high risks to food security and land degradation.

‘No regret’ options to combat the climate crisis involve forest and natural ecosystem protection and restoration and reduced meat production and consumption.

‘The challenge is great, but the solutions are many. Changing the way we produce food and what we eat will protect our climate and promote food security. We can free up vital land space being used for animal feed and grazing through healthier plant-rich diets and ecological farming practices that will help sequester carbon in the soil and increase biodiversity.

‘A drastic drive towards less meat and dairy in our diets is the silver bullet for reducing the impacts of the food system on our health and the health of the planet.’

Senior scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratory, University of Exeter

Other IPCC findings

The IPCC Special Report e Change and Land also found:

  • 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions stem from deforestation, fires and agriculture – but land can act as a powerful carbon sink to help mitigate the worst of climate change
  • Better land-use alone will not stop climate change. Delaying the phase out of fossil fuels and shifting mitigation to the land sector will increase the risk of climate impacts and food insecurity
  • Emissions from the food system as a whole, including production and consumption, represent up to 37% of total global human-induced GHG emissions
  • The consumption of meat has more than doubled in the past 60 years as land was converted to agricultural use at an unprecedented rate in human history
  • About 2 billion adults are overweight or obese, but 821 million people are still undernourished, highlighting the need to reform the global food system

‘This report sends a clear message that the way we currently use land is contributing to climate change, while also undermining its ability to support people and nature. We need to see an urgent transformation in our land use. Priorities include protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and moving to sustainable food production and consumption.

‘Good land choices are fundamental to tackling the climate crisis. A shift to sustainable land management must be accompanied by the necessary rapid and deep cuts to fossil fuel emissions if we are to meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. Action on one alone is not enough.’

Chief adviser on climate change and IPCC lead for WWF

The IPCC, the world body for assessing the state of scientific knowledge related to climate change, its impacts and potential future risks, and possible response options, saw the Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) approved by the world’s governments on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland.

It will be a key scientific input into forthcoming climate and environment negotiations, such as the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (COP14) in New Delhi, India in September and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Santiago, Chile in December.

Click here to read our article about the EU impact on global deforestation.

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