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Linking the land to the climate

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For anyone concerned about conservation and climate change, the wildfires sweeping across tens of thousands of hectares this summer – from California to Scandinavia, Greece to northern England – are doubly heartbreaking. They are further evidence of the risks we face in a warming world, while at the same time they have released millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They are destroying precious natural environments, endangering human life and generating huge economic losses.

The link between land use and climate

But they should also serve as a reminder of the importance of land use to addressing climate change. Agriculture, forestry, and other land uses account for more than 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year – only the energy sector emits more. Better forest and habitat conservation, alongside climate-smart food production and consumption, can deliver up to 30% of climate solutions needed by 2030, while helping to deliver numerous sustainable development objectives.

Sustainable land use is one of the five priority economic systems identified by the latest report from the New Climate Economy, the global commission on the economy and climate change, chaired by Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former World Bank Managing Director and Minister of Finance for Nigeria, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, and Nicholas Stern, leading UK economist and author of the landmark 2005 Stern report on the economics of global warming.

Shifting to more sustainable forms of agriculture, and ensuring strong protections for the world’s forests, could deliver more than $2 trillion each year in economic benefits, while improving food security, creating jobs, and helping to tackle climate change.

These actions align with our thinking at WWF. In June, we launched our 30X30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge with a broad coalition of partners. It calls on businesses, states, city and local governments, and global citizens to take action for better forest and habitat conservation, food production and consumption, and land use.

The land challenge makes three calls to action:

  • Cutting food waste in half by 2030, while promoting conscientious consumption. Doing so would free up 7 million square kilometers of agricultural land, and reduce global emissions by 2 billion tonnes each year;
  • Sequester an additional one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in forests, grasslands and soil each year by the same date, through non-state actor conservation, improving forest and soil management, climate friendly agriculture and forestry, and restoring habitats and degraded lands;
  • Unlocking finance, creating more transparent supply chains, fostering public-private cooperation, and protecting local rights to enable better production of food and fiber.

We believe we are pushing at an open door – or, perhaps, plowing a rich furrow; a growing number of giant consumer goods companies have pledged to eliminate deforestation throughout their supply chains. More than $13 billion has been committed to REDD+ projects, which aim to protect and restore standing forests. Forty-five countries and regions have pledged to restore more than 156 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands, including through these initiatives in Latin America and Africa.

Global Climate Action Summit features land challenge

But much more needs to be done. That is why the Global Climate Action Summit, which kicks off in California on 12 September, has included land and ocean stewardship as one of five key summit challenges.

There is simply no viable response to climate change without a revolution in how we use forests, food and land. While national governments have a role to play, communities and the private sector are picking up the mantle of leadership, and have an opportunity to demonstrate progress on the ground.  

We hope that the summit, the New Climate Economy Report, and our 30X30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge, will help inspire and mobilize a lasting movement that brings together government, business, civil society and, most importantly, the people that directly work on and depend upon the land. It is only by creating such a movement that agriculture, forests and land use can become a solution to climate change, rather than a contributor to it, and a victim of its effects.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF’s global climate and energy programme. He is based in Berlin.    

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