When we talk about land use, most people immediately get a sense we are talking about something other people do. But land use is deeply involved in our everyday experience, our personal choices, the places we live and how we move through them.

Increasingly, in countries large and small, rich and poor, people are migrating to cities. Agriculture and forestry are major widespread uses of land, but so are mining, industrial production, transport, urbanization, and waste management.

The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) delivers the news that global heating is threatening a global food crisis within decades and serious degradation of the human condition, due to widespread land degradation. Land use is also, however, a critical part of the effort to mitigate this threat.

Our food system is more than what we grow and where and how we grow it. It includes all of the elements of overall production, distribution, and consumption, up to and beyond our plates, and all of the waste generated at every stage.

Supply chains are not just a big business concern; we all have supply chains that extend across the world. Some of the world’s poorest people do as well, through clothing and mobile phone technologies and even food, water, medicine (where possible), and media (radio, TV and Internet).

Much of what we do is tied into large-scale industrial uses of land and land-based ecosystems. The IPCC report finds:

Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being including the supply of food, freshwater and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity. Human use directly affects more than 70% (likely 69-76%) of the global, ice-free land surface…

The human presence on Earth involves some use of more than 2/3 of all available land, and these uses are tied into our relationship to Earth’s climate system. Unsustainable agricultural practices, operating at industrial scale, account for 70% of humanity’s use of fresh water resources.

Urban centers and agricultural production are tightly integrated, though everyday human interactions may limit our awareness of those entanglements. Sustainable urban planning must include a strategy for incentivizing sustainable land-use both in cities and across the agricultural landscape.

The land use footprint of any one person can be difficult to quantify, because global reach has also come with overlapping efficiencies. What we can say with confidence about the land-use footprint of any given individual, household, or community, is:

  1. Favoring food derived from sustainable farming practices will reduce your negative impact on land and climate.
  2. Using clean energy will support a more climate-resilient relationship between human activity, agriculture, land-based ecosystems, and biodiversity.
  3. We need better metrics for consumers to understand the water and land impact of specific products and services.
  4. Climate resilient infrastructure can also foster more sustainable land use practices.
  5. We need regenerative farming practices to restore natural landscapes and ecosystems.

Increasingly, we see evidence of enhanced return on investment (ROI) from landscape-scale restoration efforts. According to Restore the Earth’s EcoMetrics methodology and tool, every $1 invested in landscape-scale restoration generates more than $9 in environmental, social, and economic value.

EcoMetrics is based on a rigorous methodology of capturing value created in both traditional market terms (economic value/cost internalized by project sponsors) and non-market terms (environmental, social and economic value created for other stakeholders). This idea again underscores the importance of accounting for external returns on investment (XROI).

The IPCC notes that sustainable land management practices include, but are not limited to:

agroecology (including agroforestry), conservation agriculture and forestry practices, crop and forest species diversity, appropriate crop and forest rotations, organic farming, integrated pest management, the conservation of pollinators, rain water harvesting, range and pasture management, and precision agriculture systems.

While we cannot price in market currency the services provided by pollinating insects, we can say the more than 20,000 species of bees, butterflies and other insects, are critical to the production of at least 75% of leading global food crops. It has been estimated pollination increases payments to producers of food crops by US$235-577 billion per year and keeps prices down for consumers by ensuring stable supplies.

Unsustainable urban and rural land-use practices degrade biological diversity and undermine pollinator populations. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affect the nutritional composition of food staples (such as rice and wheat), which can lead to nutrient deficiencies in millions of people by 2050. Changing biodiversity and ecosystem will influence food security, and affect nutrient and micro-nutrient malnutrition. (Link: https://phys.org/news/2018-08-co2-climb-millions-nutritional-deficiencies.html)

Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, notes:

Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required.

The IPCC Land report details converging interests in restorative and regenerative land-use practices, climate-smart investing, and alignment of climate goals with economic resilience and sustainable prosperity. Specifically, a number of enabling policies are required to incentivize better land use and sustainable farming practices.

Critical alignments between policy, practice, investment, and trade priorities, will be necessary to achieve reliable food system security by mid-century. Current levels of stress on land and water resources are already severe enough any delay in action will contribute to lower resilience rates by mid-century.

The best known science suggests achieving future food security will require limiting global heating and climate disruption.


Read the full IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land at: www.ipcc.ch/report/srccl/


This report was produced by the Resilience Intel team, with extensive background research by Resilience Intelligence Fellow Shantanu Agrawal. 

Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He is the lead strategist supporting the Acceleration Dialogues (diplomatic climate-solutions roundtables) and Resilience Intel—an effort to move the world to 100% climate-smart finance. Joseph represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, the UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes, and is founder of the Geoversiv Foundation and Live Your Democracy—an online periodical promoting engaged, non-partisan civics. His articles appear from time to time in the Guardian.

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