Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped.
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.
A new report released by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification examined humanity’s impact on the Earth’s land surface. It found that human activity has degraded more than one-third of land cover, with dire consequences for climate change, biodiversity and food systems.
Sign up to Carbon Brief's free "Cropped" email newsletter. A fortnightly digest of food, land and nature news and views. Sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.
The destruction of pristine tropical forests continued at a relentless pace in 2021 – creating emissions equivalent to those caused by India’s annual fossil fuel use, according to one of two-high level reports on global tree loss released over the last two weeks.
Indonesia banned the export of palm oil amid still-rising food-price inflation. The country produces about half of the world’s supply of the commodity – and the announcement of the ban has sparked panic-buying and price spikes. Observers worry that the ban will have an adverse impact on attempts to make the oil’s production more sustainable.
Landmark land degradation report
GLO UP: The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) released its second “Global Land Outlook” (GLO) report last week. The first GLO report, released in 2017, “underscored the wide-ranging drivers, risks and impacts of persistent land degradation”, according to a news release put out by the UNCCD. By contrast, the release continued, the report’s second edition laid out the “rationale, enabling conditions and diverse pathways by which countries and communities can design and implement a customised land restoration agenda”. Carbon Brief picked out the key messages from the report, including the urging from the UNCCD for “world leaders to adopt a ‘crisis footing’ to solve land degradation”.
FOCUS ON FOOD: The report said that modern, industrialised agriculture is responsible for altering the Earth’s surface “more than any other activity”. Carbon Brief noted that “regulations have not been sufficient to protect ecosystems from agricultural expansion”, citing figures from the report that agriculture is responsible for 80% of global deforestation. Mongabay noted that Indigenous management and agricultural practices “preserve agrobiodiversity, making food systems more resilient to climate change”. Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, a Tuareg Indigenous leader, told the website that Indigenous views must be heard and respected “if we want to learn how to restore, preserve and conserve” the Earth. China Dialogue wrote that global food systems are “no longer tenable”, nor are global consumption patterns, according to UNCCD executive secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.
‘WORRYING PICTURE’: The report also “describes a range of ongoing restoration efforts” around the world, while “paint[ing] a worrying picture of what could happen by 2050 if humanity fails to protect and restore landscapes”, Science reported. It pulled some headline statistics from the report: by 2050, “increasing agricultural and bioenergy demands” will lead to the degradation of a further 1.6bn hectares, while farmland and grazing land productivity will drop by at least 12%, “with sub-Saharan Africa affected the most”. China Dialogue pointed out that, currently, “governments have pledged to restore 1bn hectares of land”. It added that this could be achieved, the report says, “by repurposing…subsidies given to the fossil fuel and agricultural industries”.
Humanity still destroying tropical forests
RAINFOREST REDUCTION: The destruction of pristine tropical forests continued at a relentless pace in 2021, creating emissions equivalent to those caused by India’s annual fossil fuel use, according to a new Global Forest Watch report released at the end of April. Humans cut down 3.75m hectares of primary tropical forest last year, according to the findings – an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. The rate of tropical deforestation has remained “stubbornly high” over the last few years, the report authors said. The report also found that boreal forests – mainly those in Russia – experienced unprecedented tree cover loss in 2021. And the Washington Post noted that fires drove more than a third of the world’s tree cover loss last year – the largest share on record, according to the findings.
UN WARNING: A second report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released in early May also sounded the alarm over rainforest destruction. It found that tropical forest loss accounted for more than 90% of global deforestation from 2000 to 2018, Business Standard reported. Over this time, 157m hectares of tropical forest were lost – an area roughly the size of western Europe, according to the FAO. Cropland expansion, including for palm oil plantations, was the main driver of global deforestation from 2000 to 2018, accounting for half of tree loss, the report said. Livestock grazing was the second largest driver of deforestation, causing 38.5% of tree loss. In a statement, the FAO’s deputy director-general Maria Helena Semedo said: “Unsustainable agricultural development and other land uses continue to put intense pressure on our forests.”
COP26 PLEDGE IN QUESTION: New Scientist and the Guardian have been among the publications noting that the threat to tropical forests continues despite more than 100 countries pledging to end deforestation this decade at the COP26 climate summit at the end of 2021. The Guardian reported that the Global Forest Watch findings “prompt[ed] concerns governments will not meet” the COP26 pledge. It carried a quote from Rod Taylor, the global director of the forests programme at the World Resources Institute (WRI), who said: “High rates of loss continue despite pledges from countries and companies.” When approached by the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Brazilian government – a country with one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world – said they were committed to meeting the COP26 promise, adding they had “dedicated extra resources to meeting the target”.
Indonesian export ban
EXPORTS ENDED: In a “shock move”, the Indonesian government announced that it planned to ban palm oil exports, Reuters reported, adding that the cooking oil is the world’s “most widely used vegetable oil”. Exports of both the cooking oil itself and the raw materials to make it are restricted under the policy, which went into effect on 28 April. Reuters added that the move “could raise costs for packaged food producers globally and force governments to choose between using vegetable oils in food or for biofuel”. Indonesian president Joko Widodo said he would “monitor and evaluate” the effects of the policy “so availability of cooking oil in the domestic market becomes abundant and affordable”. However, some executives in the sector told the Economic Times that “they don’t expect Indonesia’s export ban to last beyond a few weeks”. Mongabay added that the ban will “cause an artificial shortage on the international market, further driving up global palm oil prices” – but leaving Indonesian farmers unable to profit from those high prices.
‘SPOOKED’: In response to the announcement of the export ban, the global oil market “freaked out”, National Public Radio (NPR) wrote, adding that the “prospect of 50% of the global supply disappearing overnight spooked commodity markets”. Palm oil prices jumped 6%, while “the prices of other edible oils followed suit”, the outlet wrote. NPR also noted that “the price of palm oil mysteriously surged in Indonesia” at the end of 2021. Other edible oil markets have also been volatile lately, several outlets reported. NPR wrote that sunflower oil prices have spiked due to a “sharp decrease in supply due to the war in Ukraine”. Russia and Ukraine, combined, produce about 75% of the world’s sunflower oil, the website noted. Meanwhile, a Bloomberg column reported that soybean oil prices “have nearly doubled since the start of last year” due to continuing drought in South America.
SUSTAINABILITY SUSPECT: How producers will respond to the ban “will be of great importance to the continued progress of efforts to support sustainable palm oil production and to curtail palm-linked deforestation”, wrote economist Khor Yu Leng in China Dialogue. She noted that the palm-oil industry “has in recent decades acceded to voluntary sustainability schemes”, which, in turn, has “slowed the expansion of the area of industrial plantations”. However, the piece warned that “some buyers and NGOs remain worried about deforestation that may enter supply chains by way of unfettered expansion of smaller estates and smallholder growers”.
News and views
PACKING A PUNCH: Greenhouse gas emissions produced by JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, have surged more than 50% in the past five years – suggesting the firm is now a bigger emitter than Italy, DeSmog reported. The emissions increase is largely a result of the Brazilian firm acquiring other meat companies, it added. The number of cattle in JBS’s supply chain has increased by 54% since 2016, while the number of pigs and chickens increased by 67% and by 40%, respectively, according to research by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a nonprofit advocacy organisation. JBS – which has pledged to reduce emissions to net zero by 2040 – told the Financial Times it denied the accuracy of the numbers, saying the report used “flawed methodology and grossly extrapolated data to make misleading claims”. The investigation came as the Washington Post released an interactive graphic showing how cattle ranching has “devoured” the Amazon.
PASTORALISTS EVICTED: More than 150,000 Maasai pastoralists living in Tanzania “face eviction” from their ancestral lands, the Guardian reported. Thousands of the pastoralists have appealed to the US, UK and EU for help in stopping these plans. The newspaper described two groups facing eviction: one due to a proposed expansion of the UNESCO-listed Ngorongoro conservation area and one due to the “expanding operations of…United Arab Emirates-owned hunting company” in Loliondo, near the Kenyan border. The Guardian added that in the Ngorongoro region, the Maasai “already face restricted use of the land”, leading to food shortages that have “worsened with drought in the region”. Evictions in Loliondo “are expected to go ahead any day”, the paper wrote.
LIFE IN HELL: Pakistan and India are continuing to suffer from extreme spring heatwaves with temperatures “unprecedented for this time of year”, the Guardian reported. The heat has led to critical water and electricity shortages and caused a “devastating impact” on crops, including wheat, fruits and vegetables, according to the newspaper. “We are living in hell,” one Pakistani citizen told the Guardian. “This is the first time the weather has wreaked such havoc on our crops in this area,” a Pakistani farmer added. In India, the yield from wheat crops has dropped by up to 50% in some areas, according to the newspaper. The drop in wheat production has raised questions about “how the country will balance its domestic needs with ambitions to increase exports and make up for shortfalls due to Russia’s war in Ukraine”, according to the Associated Press.
WATER BAN: A “water shortage emergency” caused by the worst California drought on record forced officials to restrict the outdoor water usage to just one day a week for about 6 million people in southern California starting on 1 June, the Los Angeles Times reported. The “unprecedented” decision by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will apply to areas that depend on water from the drought-ravaged State Water Project, which also delivers water to farmlands. Adel Hagekhalil, the water district’s general manager, called the situation “unlike anything we have seen before”, while some have expressed concerns that the restrictions will lead to widespread killing of grass and trees.
GIVING UP MEAT: A global poll of 24,000 adults reported that 44% of people said they are likely to cut down on meat this year in order to lessen their climate impact, while 35% are unlikely to do this. The survey, by market research company Ipsos, found that people in Peru, Mexico and China are most likely to consider cutting back on meat to reduce their climate impact, while those in the US, Canada and Japan are the least likely. A representative of Ipsos Mexico expressed “scepticism” at the findings, saying Mexicans “like to be politically correct”, but “sometimes there is a say-do gap”. As Carbon Brief reported in its in-depth explainer on meat and dairy, North Americans eat far more red meat than the global average, while people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa eat the least.
- Farm workers exposed to climate change effects are demanding protections – Sarah Sax, Nexus Media News
- How to decolonize conservation – Erica Gies, Hakai Magazine
- Three steps to make a success of the Kunming biodiversity conference – Li Shuo, China Dialogue
- ‘The tuber man of Kerala’ on a quest to champion India’s rare and indigenous crops – Monika Mandel, The Guardian
Replacing just 20% of global beef consumption with fungi-based alternatives could halve worldwide deforestation and the resulting CO2 emissions by 2050, a new study estimated. The research used modelling to examine the environmental benefits of replacing ruminant meat consumption with microbial protein, a meat alternative produced in fermentation tanks. In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, a switch to fungi-based meat alternatives could lead to a lowering of methane emissions – a potent greenhouse gas produced when livestock belch – according to the study. The report authors added that fungi-based meat alternatives are already available in a large number of countries, including the UK and Switzerland.
The risks of marine species extinction could be reduced by more than 70% if greenhouse gas emissions trends were reversed, according to a new study. Researchers analysed historical extinction data from fossil records, then used climate models and species vulnerability data to determine extinction rates across the world’s oceans. They found that, if emissions were to accelerate, “species losses from warming and oxygen depletion” would “culminate in a mass extinction rivalling those in Earth’s past”, but the worst impacts could be avoided with significant emissions reductions. The study identified polar species as the most at-risk, but added that “local biological richness declines more in the tropics”.
Are forest carbon projects in Africa green but mean?: A mixed-method analysis
Climate & Development
Forest carbon projects in sub-Saharan Africa could be linked to increased rates of community unrest and violent conflict, a new study has suggested. The research used modelling to examine how 22 forest carbon projects in sub-Saharan Africa are linked to nearby levels of community contestation (such as protests) and the probability of violence. The research concluded that forest carbon projects increase the likelihood of community contestation by 32% and violence by 12%. The study also provided qualitative evidence from one case study, the Bukaleba forest reserve in Uganda. This project has been linked to the displacement of local people, loss of livelihoods and reduced food security, according to the research paper.
In the diary
- 9-20 May: UN Convention to Combat Desertification 15th Conference of the Parties
- 19 May: Land Portal Foundation webinar: Post COP26 reflections: A focus on opportunities for customary land rights
- 23-27 May: European Geosciences Union general assembly 2022
Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]