Climate change… what if the solution started with land management?

The IPCC special report warns that climate change can further exacerbate the existing pressure on land resources, with likely negative consequences for food systems, human and ecosystem health, livelihoods and infrastructure.

At the same time, rural land using sectors – especially agriculture – are a significant net source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the global anthropogenic emissions.

The message is clear: these sectors are not only the witnesses of climate change, but also a contributor and must instead rapidly become part of the solution.

Keeping the global temperature increase well below 2 degrees, and potentially limiting it to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, will not be possible without major changes in how our land resources are utilised.

While potential responses are numerous, some of them may take time to deliver impacts (e.g. measures like afforestation and deforestation). Importantly, many measures can address more than one challenge and deliver multiple benefits simultaneously, e.g. reducing emissions while improving biodiversity. However, it is equally possible that measures to address one area may have negative effects in others.

A careful approach is required especially with regards to measures leading to increased land conversion with potentially negative impacts on other environmental objectives like biodiversity, highlights the IPCC report.

What does this mean for EU policy?

With discussions still ongoing about a number of post-2020 EU policies – including the EU 2050 climate strategy, the 2021-2027 Common Agriculture Policy and the Horizon Europe –  the IPCC report comes at the right time to inform the thinking of the incoming Commission as well as new MEPs who have recently taken up their seats.

IEEP’s research on net-zero agriculture by 2050 resonates with the findings of the IPCC’s special report on land, demonstrating the task ahead of EU leaders: 

  1. They must take concrete and adequate steps to address the environmental (including climate) footprint of the EU agriculture sector and the wider bioeconomy as part of the transition towards a sustainable and prosperous Europe. Our food system is undoubtedly an important part of this picture, but not the only one – transition needs to be acted on now, as its effects will be felt progressively;
  2. It is essential to cover all types of biomass use – food, material or energy – in an integrated way to ensure that actions in one system (e.g. energy) do not lead to increased pressure on another one (e.g. food). Earth’s natural resources are finite – and so is land.
  3. To be able to do this, there is a need for a coherent set of policies and governance mechanisms that enable the necessary transition. Considering the potential scale of transition outlined by the illustrative land-use pathways, one can argue that the current EU policy framework is not adequate to drive these changes. In particular, the EU needs to address critical policy gaps in relation to, e.g. having a coherent, strategic policy framework on soil – which had been intended to be filled in by the withdrawn Soil Framework Directive.

Whilst climate change is a real present threat, so is the loss of biodiversity, among other environmental challenges, as highlighted by the recent IPBES report. These challenges need to be tackled together.

Focusing solely on one particular threat could lead to irreversible damages and missed opportunities in delivering multiple benefits through synergetic measures and practices.

In that regard, the political guidelines of the President Elect of the European Commission seem to move in the right direction, putting a wider range of environmental issues on the agenda than just climate change.

But the proposal still falls short of a truly holistic approach...

IEEP’s recent analysis of the guidelines found no concrete steps in the guidelines to address issues related to biodiversity and air pollution, among other areas. Neither does the current policy framework adequately address the issue of consumption, which needs to be addressed by finding incentives for changes to diets, for example.

There is now an urgent need to combine an adequately broad policy framework – which brings in topics such as diet – with a policymaking process robust enough to ensure that specific policy measures capable of delivering the necessary changes can be designed, tested, approved, implemented and evaluated.

This will require adaptation of existing processes that fairly reward current investments in capital and skills and ensure that fairness, the interests of future generations and the transition away from unsustainable current economic activities are to be achieved.

A lot of hard choices will have to be made, but there will also be new and exciting opportunities that will eventually prevent us from hitting a point of no return.