IPCC identifies land and forests as our natural climate regulators

Published by Net Impact Amsterdam on

Written by:
Andrea Palmer
Founder and Co-President of Net Impact Amsterdam

Net Impact Amsterdam
‘Thinking Out Loud’ Blog Series

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, better known as the IPCC, released its special report on climate change and land last week. This paramount publication testifies to the ways in which how we use our land contributes to climate change, and how climate change contributes to the health of our land.  

The report confirms a lot of what we already knew about the relationship between biology and the climate, but also reveals new findings of how land interacts with the atmosphere. The IPCC reiterates that land is critically important in the climate equation, both as a source of emissions as well as a solution to reabsorb these greenhouse gases.

The IPCC states that while land sequesters nearly a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, it will be impossible to keep global temperature changes within safe levels without fundamentally adjusting the ways that land is managed and food is produced.

This new level of clarity on the importance of land in the climate equation is profound.

The report itself is extremely comprehensive and labourious to read, at well over 1,000 pages of conclusions, so we’ve summarised several key takeaways around using land as a solution for carbon sequestration:

  • One of the fundamental concepts presented is that soil, when rich in life and organic matter, can absorb significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. The IPCC found that the potential for soil carbon sequestration is about 1.5x the annual emissions of the United States.
  • When stripped of organic material, soil loses its ability to sequester carbon. Activities like intensive agriculture strips soil of this material, as it does not reintroduce enough organic matter back into the soil to sustain a healthy composition, and thereby reduces the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. Watch the video below for a crash course in soil health from The Guardian.
  • Healthy forests are critical to the climate equation. The report reads “reducing deforestation and forest degradation represents one of the most effective and robust options for climate change mitigation globally.”
  • Because forests play such a fundamental role in climate regulation, the IPCC recommends large-scale reforestation and afforestation (converting previously forested land back into its forested state, and planting forests where they never existed). The IPCC finds that these strategies have the potential to remove carbon equivalent to all of China’s emissions in 2010.
  • To achieve the scale needed to sequester this much carbon, all grazing lands would need to be converted to forests. The IPCC states this scale of foresting could pose a risk to global food security, as this land can no longer be used for agricultural purposes.
  • The IPCC is generally passive in calling for a shift to plant-based diets, which require much less land use per calorie to support. Though, in effect, plant-based diets would dramatically reduce these risks to global food security that they mention.

A turning point for climate action

This report signals a significant turning point for climate action. While we must continue driving emission reductions across our energy and transport systems, we also need to think about simple, effective, solutions to absorb the carbon we have already emitted. And, as the report finds, the most natural systems can be the most effective solutions for climate regulation.   

What does this mean for carbon measurement?

I hope the IPCC’s findings offer the foundation to explore updated carbon accounting methodologies. The market needs metrics that account for more than just emissions output; ones that also integrate reabsorption abilities for more accurate “on-site” net figures. Off-setting through external carbon credits, in this case, isn’t enough.

Leaving these key elements out of the equation poses the risk that consumers and investors make the wrong choices. It should not be the case, as it is now, for example, that GMO giant, Monsanto, earns better climate scores than local organic food producer, Wessanen. We need to zoom out and look at climate data with logic and to think of climate considerations as the complex, multi-layered, and constantly moving parts that they are.