As the world’s political leaders come to Paris for the international climate negotiations (COP21), how do things look with respect to the land sector (agriculture and forests), which is responsible for nearly ¼ of global greenhouse gas emissions? Over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been analyzing how countries included the land sector in their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). What are their plans and how could they be made better?
Overall, the intended contributions are disappointing. It’s clear that the sum of the INDCs doesn’t add up to what the world needs to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Their treatment of the land sector, particularly for some of the largest countries, shows limited ambition and in some cases doesn’t talk about any actions at all.
Some countries that have achieved a great deal in past decades in reducing deforestation or in reforesting, propose to do considerably less in the years to come. The most important sources of agricultural emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide from ruminant livestock such as beef cattle, are seldom even mentioned.
Furthermore, there is a real deficit in transparency. The clear and specific information one needs to understand what a country is proposing to do – numbers for emissions reductions, sequestration amounts, business-as-usual reference levels, time periods, costs, and which actions are conditional on financing – are all too often lacking.
It turns out that some of the world’s smaller countries did considerably better with respect to transparency and ambition than the large ones. In all three of our white papers analyzing the INDCs, we highlighted how nations like Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo actually did better by the land sector in their INDCs, compared to the U.S., the E.U., China, Brazil, Indonesia and India.
So, what now? One of the important results of the Paris COP should be an agreement on how the INDCs will be revised and improved next year. (They’re also likely to be renamed. One of the leading candidates for the new term is “NDMC,” which despite how it sounds is not actually a tribute to the 1980s hip-hop group.)
In those revisions, what might we hope for from the land sector, combining some of the best features of the INDCs from different countries? Here’s a short list of elements that could be borrowed:
- Clarity concerning accounting, from the U.S. and the European Union
- Integration of mitigation and adaptation plans, from Mexico
- Proposed reductions given in absolute numbers (how much they’ll cut, measured in tons of greenhouse gas emissions), from Brazil
- Ambitious goals to reduce deforestation, from Ethiopia
- Similar ambition in terms of reforestation, from India
- Ending emissions from the clearing of peat swamps, from Indonesia
- Plans for a transition to sustainable agriculture, from Morocco
- Estimates of the costs, separated out by sector and with clarity about which plans are dependent on outside financing, from the DRC
We’d need to add in some things that have enormous potential but were not clearly put forward by any nation:
- Recognition that the largest sources of land-sector emissions come from diets which are overly rich in high-emissions foods – too rich for our health, in fact.
- A commitment to reducing the excessive use of fertilizer and manure on crops, which wastes money and resources, pollutes the air and water, and leads to large emissions of the highly-potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
- The long-term goal for the planet as a whole, of reaching and surpassing carbon neutrality – getting to total emissions that are less than total carbon sequestration, so that in net terms we’re removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in the second half of the twenty-first century.
No country has come close to including all of what we need. But by learning from each other’s INDCs, each could make a commitment next year that would add up to what the health of the planet requires.