United Nations Panel Says Farmers are a Key to Managing Climate Change

September 9, 2019 | 5:52 pm
farmer in the fieldLance Cheung/USDA
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on the interplay of land management and the climate crisis. The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change on Land builds on a series of recent disconcerting climate reports. In doing so, it paints a harrowing picture of ways in which climate change is already affecting land across the globe, threatening livelihoods, food, energy, water, and other critical resources. Fortunately, in addition to dire warnings, the report emphasized some good news: food and agriculture can play a major role in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

Given the depth and rigor of this report, it is not one to take lightly: it represents the work of 107 scientists from 52 countries and synthesizes over 7,000 papers. And following its recommendations could help not only to combat climate change, but also to address persistent global challenges such as desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity. But achieving the benefits will require acting fast. Here I’ll summarize my top takeaways:

1. Land and food are already at risk in a warming world.

Unsurprisingly, the new report states that climate impacts on land, including agricultural land, are severe and getting worse. Most regions have seen increased extreme heat and more intense rainfall, while some have seen more frequent and intense droughts. Alongside such changes, the report warns of unanticipated and cascading events with far-reaching impacts, with the most vulnerable communities likely to face the greatest suffering.

Furthermore, climate impacts vary by region and compound in worrisome ways. For example, in dryland areas that are home to 500 million people, desertification is already increasing vulnerability to extreme droughts, heat waves and dust storms, which combine with climate change to accelerate desertification, thereby creating a dangerous feedback loop. In other areas, heavy rainfall, sea level rise, or flooding are exacerbating land degradation, decreasing climate change resilience, and so on. Such impacts have already led to shifts in agricultural pests and diseases, creating additional challenges for farmers. As a result of numerous climate change impacts, some areas have already experienced reduced crop yields and food supply instabilities, reducing access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

2. There are numerous options for action, and several have co-benefits.

While the new review is alarming, it identifies several pathways to limit the worst outcomes and, in some cases, even help address other societal needs:

  • Reducing agriculture’s emissions and storing more carbon in plants and soils. Over the past decade, the agriculture, forest, and land use sector has accounted for about 23 percent of global heat-trapping emissions, and about half of that was from agriculture (about 6.2 of the sector’s 12.0 GtCO2e per year). Thus, reducing emissions from key agricultural sources such as soil and manure management, ruminants, and rice production represents one important mitigation opportunity. Agriculture can also contribute to emissions reductions by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into plants and soils. The report estimates that land has recently been removing around 11.2 GtCO2e annually, but that this sink could be increased through sustainable land management (which is defined as including agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, crop diversity and rotations, organic farming, integrated pest management, pollinator conservation, rainwater harvesting, range and pasture management, and precision agriculture). For example, cover cropping on 25 percent of cropland could mitigate 0.44 GtCO2e per year, while a broader suite of crop, livestock, and agroforestry practices could mitigate up to 2.3-9.6 GtCO2e per year. In even better news, such practices can also improve climate change adaptation, reduce land degradation, and maintain land productivity. But there is a catch: benefits are expected to decrease as temperatures rise, underscoring the importance of taking action sooner rather than later.
  • Leveraging the food system for greater impact. The potential for climate change mitigation from agriculture looks even bigger when considering connections to the broader food system, which accounts for up to 37 percent of global emissions (including activities such as heating greenhouses, grain drying, transportation, manufacturing fertilizers, food processing, etc.). Changes within any of these activities can help reduce global emissions, but it’s also possible to think even bigger. Since 25-30 percent of food is lost or wasted—amounting to 8–10 percent of global heat-trapping emissions—reducing such waste can eliminate emissions otherwise accrued from farm to table. In addition, because different foods have different climate impacts, food procurement and dietary shifts can also help (e.g., dietary changes may reduce emissions by 0.7-8 GtCO2e per year).
  • Managing risks and increasing resilience. In addition to the actions outlined above, the report notes a need to support farmers and other food system stakeholders in managing risks that are rapidly getting worse. Fortunately, a number of the suggestions presented may bring co-benefits and contribute to other societal goals, such as sustainable development. For example, promoting seed sovereignty, facilitating livelihood diversification, and reducing land loss from urban sprawl can all reduce risk and increase resilience while benefiting impacted communities.

3. Action is needed NOW to enable change.

Given the consequences that are already being felt around the world, and the solutions at hand, there’s an urgent need for policies, programs, and other initiatives that can enable rapid change. While effective actions will differ from place to place, the report outlines many to choose from. For example, legal and regulatory mechanisms can help correct market failures, protect targeted areas, and set food and environmental standards. Land tenure reform and tools such as taxes, subsidies, and insurance can be designed to promote sustainable land management. Social and cultural norms, consumer awareness, and skill-building can also play a role. These may include farmer networks, rural advisory services, strengthened local and community collective action, early warning systems, and response plans. Vulnerable communities, including those that have been marginalized and discriminated against, are at the greatest risk and must be centered as options are deployed and prioritized.

Opportunities but urgency for farmers and food systems

The new IPCC report offers a stern warning of climate change impacts on land and the dangerous ripple effects. Yet it also outlines a path to a more desirable future that is within reach, one that includes affordable, low-risk actions at our disposal: reducing land degradation, agricultural emissions, and food loss; shifting to balanced and diversified diets; and reversing forest conversion.

Fortunately, here in the US, there’s growing momentum surrounding the healthy soil practices that are an essential step in the right direction. Such practices are catching on among farmers, and new policies and policy ideas that can help accelerate change are popping up each month. But to ensure things really take off, there’s a need for more action from Congress. And faster.