Voluntary CO2 emission cuts announced so far by States are not enough to stay on target and avoid trespassing the 2° threshold: 13 gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent are missing to bridge the distance. Can the energy sector alone carry this burden? Better land management and degraded lands recovery could contribute one fourth of the gap, in a cost effective way and with extremely consistent mitigation and adaptation co-benefits.
Keywords: CO2 emissions, Land Management
JEL classification: Q15, Q2, Q24, Q28, Q4, Q5
Suggested citation: Mastrojeni, Grammenos, The Climate Challenge and the Value of Lands (November 19, 2015). Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (Re3), http://dx.doi.org/10.7711/feemre3.2015.11.002
Energy will be the core issue at the upcoming climate CoP 21 in Paris. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables, boosting efficiency in energy production and consumption, giving up subsidies to traditional sources will be crucial aspects to solve. Yet, is it reasonable to expect the energy sector alone to face the huge challenge of climate change?
It is neither practical nor wise to concentrate on one single business the responsibility of such a fundamental adjustment of our economies. Instead, the sum of growing but moderate emission savings achievable by each of the sectors that produce greenhouse gases would take us on a safer path, and one that would not impose shocks or a traumatically rapid transformation to one industry singled out as responsible. Among the various parallel actions that can be undertaken to reduce emissions, a better management of lands, together with the recovery of already degraded areas, looks extremely promising.
The term “Emissions gap” defines the difference between the level of greenhouse gas emissions consistent with meeting the 2° C target, and the emissions reductions that governments have committed to in their current policies. It is essential to avoid trespassing the threshold of a 2° C average increase in global temperature, because if we go beyond we would certainly give strength to fearsome positive feedback loops that would swiftly push planetary warming to dramatic levels, ranging between 4 and 6° degrees. For instance, beyond a 2° C increase Permafrost thawing would gain unprecedented speed and strength, releasing in the atmosphere growing quantities of methane, a gas with a greenhouse potential as much as 25 times bigger than C02. This feedback loop – the more temperatures increase, the more Permafrost melts, the more methane is released and increases temperatures, and so on – could alone cause a surge in temperatures of up to 8° C in the Arctic region and of 3.5° in global average, in just a few decades: a scenario that would disrupt ecosystems and destabilize society.
Figure 1 - Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Source: Kindly provided by UNCCD
Nevertheless, currently the Emissions gap is far from closed. The distance that needs to be bridged in order to stay on target is currently estimated at 18 GtC02e (gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent). This means that from the expected global emissions of 60 GtC02e, we need to come down to 42 GtC02e by 2030, but it is anticipated that the commitments of States next December would only reduce emissions by 5 Gt by 2030. This closes the emissions gap by less than 30% of what is required; so the urgent challenge now is to find ways of further reducing emissions of 13 gigatons, and all sectors need to mobilize and contribute to meeting this goal.
A key element of the equation are lands: widespread mismanagement of lands turns them into a source of emissions - accounting for approximatively 25% of the total – and this is a paradox because healthy lands should instead act as the most natural carbon absorption and storage mechanism. This primeval function of lands can nevertheless be revitalized on a vast scale in a surprisingly cost-effective way, and with even more surprising adaptation and mitigation co-benefits. The international community realized it, and included the goal of zeroing net land degradation by 2030 in the new Development Agenda that will guide nations until that year, within an operational approach called “Land Degradation Neutrality”: a vision that is primarily pursued by UNCCD, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
A land based strategy for climate change comes in two faces: on one hand, it is about stopping the accelerating trends of land degradation, that turn increasingly vast areas from natural carbon wells into sources of emissions. On the other hand, we can start at once rehabilitating the vast expanses of agonizing soils and redraft them in the fight against global warming.
Land is rich in life. If a soil is sterilized, or if its biochemical balance is disrupted, it will degenerate and die, taking in the grave its contribution to the ecosystem, including its capacity to store carbon in the various layers of life that a healthy ground can host. This partial or total death becomes perceptible, macroscopically, in different ways: from desertification to salinization, from erosion to pulverization. An agonizing land stops playing its role and producing both for us humans and for the ecosystem, and the results go beyond the loss of productivity and carbon storage potential. Land degradation makes soils weak and less resistant to wind and water erosion, while it hampers their capacity to absorb and retain excess rainfall: fragile soils are already contributing to the devastating floods and mud slides that are becoming more and more common all over the Planet.
Mankind has always modified – but rarely killed – lands. But, in the past, it happened at a pace and in ways that allowed soils to heal spontaneously. It is since our approach to land has become blindly industrial that, instead, we tend to suppress their vitality. It came with multiple practices that unnecessarily neglect the life factor in lands, common in agriculture, urbanization, infrastructures, tourism, mining and much more. The result has been that in the last 150 years more than half of lands have been attained and that the dead remnants are accumulating steadily. Land degradation currently causes the loss of 12 million acres a year – roughly the surface of Bulgaria – and affects the livelihoods of 1.5 billion people in 168 states. Most of them are developing countries, where land degradation affects food security and therefore propels migrations or, even worse, illegal economies, fanaticisms, conflicts and terrorism. In other words, in poorer areas land degradation paves the way to global instability hot spots.
Figure 2 - Feedback Loops and the Objectives of the Rio Conventions
Source: Kindly provided by UNCCD
In the near future, drivers of land degradation are set to increase dramatically: in figures, to feed a world population of 9.5 billion in 2050, food production needs to increase by 70% which, in turn, would require an increase of 55% in water consumption and 37% more energy. If we do not modify our relationship to lands, this leads to occupy, exhaust, and then abandon, more and more surfaces of pristine ecosystems. This needs to be stopped: because it fosters CO2 emissions together with human insecurity and fragility; but also because it is not at all necessary to go this way.
These scenarios are fearsome, but the good news is that remedies are possible and cost effective, and that the benefits mirror the scale and width of the risks. The lands we already occupy can be kept healthy and vital, we just need to care about it; meanwhile, instead of aggressing a growing portion of virgin lands, we vast extents of degraded lands are available to be rehabilitated at comparatively low costs, returning them their natural function as carbon wells and providers of fertility, security, and ultimately hope for the future, especially in poorer areas. Indeed, it is in poorer and more fragile regions that land based approaches to climate change hold better promises.
The costs of rehabilitating an acre of land differ enormously, ranging from less than a hundred U$ in the most favorable contexts, to the tens of thousands necessary to restore complex coastal biomes, for instance. Nevertheless, most lands in those areas that are turning into instability hotspots can be recovered with costs not exceeding 250 U$ per ha, and these extents are abundant in the areas where growing migration waves originate, especially in the Sahel region. Their recovery, in proper conditions, can turn each acre in a carbon well so effective that it would take an investment ranging between 1,000 to 1,500 U$ to achieve the same result by substituting fossil fuels with renewables. This alone could justify the endeavor, but the most relevant aspect is that it triggers a cascade of significant side benefits. Especially if recovered lands are entrusted to small scale farmers, it has the potential to generate:
These advantages are not only “collateral” to the goal of lowering emissions, an unexpected gift in unrelated dimensions. They provide precious basic conditions for an effective fight against climate change. Indeed, revitalized lands give rural communities – and entire nations – a concrete solution for their livelihoods and therefore subtract them from the dynamics of poverty, insecurity and conflict: the same that would otherwise trap them in a cycle of structural incapacity to take care of their environment or, in the worst cases, that would push them to actively destroy it.
We are children of our lands and our link to the soils we walk on is much more than productive, rather looking like an overall mutual belonging relationship. It is not surprising that correcting our approach to lands entails such a broad spectrum of both natural and social healing solutions. But our world looks at numbers and one thing counts: figures tell us that a better management of lands could alone account for bridging one fourth of the Emission gap. Can we afford to forget about it?