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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on Monday on how to tackle climate change. Its findings are covered in-depth by Carbon Brief. Protecting existing forests and other ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and balanced and healthy diets are among the solutions that offer the highest potentials for mitigation, it said.
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Key UN talks towards a deal to reverse nature loss have ended in stalemate. Carbon Brief attended the Geneva talks and has produced an in-depth analysis of the key topics discussed and why progress was so slow.
Carbon Brief has spoken to Ukraine’s first deputy minister of agrarian policy and food, Taras Vysotskyi. He talked about wheat reserves and the state of agricultural equipment in Ukraine, as well as prospects of exporting agricultural products abroad.
IPCC report: plant-based diets for the planet
KEY FINDINGS: The IPCC’s new report on tackling climate change published this week takes a deep look at agriculture, food systems, forests and diets – from the emissions they cause to the crucial role they play in mitigation. According to the report, nearly a quarter (22%) of global greenhouse gas emissions came from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) in 2019, with deforestation contributing about half. Food systems are associated with roughly 42% of global GHG emissions, even as “there is still widespread food insecurity and malnutrition”, the report found. It noted that food waste alone contributed to 8-10% of emissions between 2010 and 2016 and cautioned that “it is crucial to focus on high-emitting individuals and groups within countries”, given the role of global food supply chains. Methane emissions increased between 2010 and 2019 – mainly courtesy of the digestive process of cows and sheep and manure production – as did nitrous oxide emissions, which have been “dominated by agriculture and fertiliser use”.
MEAT HALFWAY: At a household carbon footprint level, the food sector “dominates in all income groups”, according to the report, accounting for 28% on average – more than the footprint for energy. Food production accounts for 48% of the negative impacts on land and 70% on water resources, the IPCC said. These impacts increase with incomes, as richer homes consume more meat, dairy and processed food. Of all foods, meat from cows and sheep is the most emissions-heavy, but not all beef is the same – emission estimates vary vastly from cows reared in factory farms versus those reared on rangelands or mountain pastures. Shifting consumption towards plant-based diets has “high mitigation potential”, states the report, and sustainable food systems that provide healthy diets for all are within reach, the authors said. But it is not just diets – plant-based alternatives, cultured meat, hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture are all part of a host of “emerging technologies” that the IPCC authors suggested could help with “substantial reduction” in emissions from food production.
STANDING FORESTS: As of 2020, 4bn hectares of land globally were covered in forests. While levels of deforestation may have declined between 2010 and 2019, the world continued to lose more carbon-critical tropical forests, with gains in forest cover in temperate and boreal regions. Of all emission-cutting measures from now to 2050 related to land, protecting and restoring forests and other ecosystems could have the highest potential, the IPCC said. Of all factors that kept deforestation levels low, the report found that protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and the presence of Indigenous people were the most consistently successful. By contrast, higher crop prices, close proximity to agriculture, urban areas and roads were consistently associated with higher levels of deforestation.
PARKS AND LAND RECS: The report estimated that “global urban trees sequester 217m tonnes of carbon annually” and that urban greening can reduce energy and health bills, while delivering multiple benefits, from cooling to buffering weather extremes. It cautioned against creating high-density housing without “green and open spaces”, which could intensify the heat-island effect in cities and impact the urban poor. Tackling climate change could improve crop productivity, but large-scale, land-intensive climate measures could create food insecurity and “exacerbate trade-offs with the conservation of habitats, adaptation, biodiversity and other services”. The report also pointed to the funding gap for land-based climate measures. The world currently spends $700m on them each year, against the $400bn needed if the land sector is to deliver up to 30% of the CO2 cuts needed to meet climate targets, the authors said. This is a sum that is “smaller than current subsidies provided for agriculture and forestry”.
Nature talks end in deadlock
BIODIVERSITY STILL ON BRINK: Countries have left key UN nature talks in Geneva without reaching consensus on a global deal to reverse nature loss. Negotiators from 164 countries worked into the night for two weeks to try to reach consensus on the vast array of targets to be included in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) – often referred to as the “Paris Agreement for nature”. As Carbon Brief reported in an in-depth summary of the talks, the ultimate aim of the framework is for people to “live in harmony with nature” by 2050. Many of its targets will have implications for efforts to tackle climate change, ranging from the role for nature-based climate solutions to the removal and redirection of fossil fuel subsidies. Countries are due to adopt the GBF at COP15, the UN biodiversity summit expected to take place in just a few months in Kunming, China. Countries have agreed to meet again in Nairobi in June to try to iron out issues ahead of COP15.
HEADING FOR COPENHAGEN? Observers said the talks moved at a “glacial pace”. Some raised concerns that countries are “heading for Copenhagen” – a reference to the 2009 climate summit that was widely perceived to have ended in failure. But what was behind the slow progress? One observer familiar with both climate and biodiversity talks told Carbon Brief that countries had “kicked the can down the road”, leaving the majority of the substantive issues in the GBF for COP15. Other observers pointed to a lack of general leadership from COP15 host country China. However, some said parties were not entirely to blame for the slow progress, pointing to the two-year pause of in-person discussions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shadow cast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as possible contributing factors.
CB SPEAKS TO UN NATURE CHIEF: One figure urging parties to find solutions is Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the Tanzanian lawyer and diplomat who is the executive secretary of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At the sidelines of the talks, Carbon Brief spoke to Mrema about progress towards COP15, the interlinks between climate change and biodiversity loss and whether countries will come together to reverse nature loss. Comparing the GBF to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, Mrema said: “If we succeed – not me particularly, but if the parties succeed – then it will be the Paris Agreement [for nature] in terms of its importance, in terms of its transformative nature, in terms of its ambition.”
Q&A on Ukraine food crisis
BREADBASKET: One of the largest global ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be its impacts on food security. Ukraine, whose flag is seen as representing “blue skies over fields of wheat”, is the fourth-largest supplier of wheat and corn in the world. It contributes nearly 12% to the world’s wheat exports and 16% of corn exports.
Carbon Brief’s Anastasiia Zagoruichyk has spoken to Taras Vysotskyi – Ukraine’s first deputy minister of agrarian policy and food – about how the conflict has impacted agricultural production. During their Skype call, Vysotskyi laid out the current situation with wheat and oil reserves in Ukraine and the prospects for exports:
“As of today, Ukraine has 6m tonnes of wheat, of which 2.5-3m tonnes are food [the rest is fodder wheat]. Currently, the annual consumption, which is 4m tonnes of food wheat, is in stock, although the new wheat harvest will be in three months, so these stocks are sufficient. The stock of sunflower seeds is sufficient to ensure seven years of oil consumption.
“Currently, only corn, sunflower seeds, oil and barley are allowed to be exported. Fodder wheat is available after obtaining a licence, but food wheat is stored for domestic reserve. We have to wait for the harvest, see what we can collect and then resume exports.”
Vysotskyi told Carbon Brief that “about 15% of agricultural machinery is lost”, adding:
“Currently, there is no possibility of exporting from the ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv, where the main facilities were located. Exports are made by rail across borders with EU countries, such as Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Also partly through highways crossings with EU countries.”
When asked about the priority of export destination countries, the deputy minister replied that “we do not have priorities, we are ready for everyone, where there will be logistics for receiving a cargo”.
News and views
NATIVE RIGHTS: The Paris climate goals could fail “unless the rights of Indigenous people who protect rainforests are honoured”, the Guardian reported, quoting new analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Climate Focus. About twice as much carbon is sequestered in Indigenous-stewarded rainforests compared to other lands in countries such as Peru, Brazil or Colombia, the analysis estimates. If countries such as Brazil and Colombia lost their Indigenous and community-held forests, they would have to take 80% of their vehicles off the road to make up for the rise in emissions, the research said. The study used satellite data to estimate carbon content, sequestration and emissions from these forests, contrasting them with their national climate pledges to see if they were included in planning. “In most cases, they were not,” the authors concluded.
CALIFORNIA DROUGHT: Farmers in California are to be paid to keep their fields empty as the state tries to conserve water in extreme drought conditions, Modern Farmer reported. The rice industry will be most impacted by the plan, the publication said, adding: “California produces virtually all of domestically grown sushi rice, and the Central Valley is responsible for a quarter of the nation’s crops.” The unusual dryness has also contributed to the Sierra Nevada snowpack – the source of 30% of the state’s water supply – falling to one of its lowest levels in 70 years, the Mercury News reported. Elsewhere, CNN carried stark images showing how the second-largest artificial reservoir in the US, located in Colorado, has fallen to its lowest level since 1963 amid the drought conditions.
GTG GOTABAYA: Sri Lanka has been gripped by an escalating economic, political and humanitarian crisis this fortnight, as rising fuel and food prices and shortages prompted large-scale protests and an exodus of refugees fleeing the country, the Indian Express reported. The crisis was precipitated by many factors, including a ban on fertiliser importers as part of President Rajapaksa’s campaign to turn the commodity-exporting island nation organic overnight. In Colombo, “thousands gathered on the main Galle Road earlier this month, some even entering the president’s office”, the story said. Outlets reported that milk powder was being sold at Rs. 1900 a kilo (around £20) and rice at Rs. 220 a kilo (around £2). On Monday, after Sri Lanka’s cabinet representatives resigned en-masse, Rajapaksa appealed to all political parties to work together. However, “all major opposition parties rejected the offer, reminding the president of the people’s chief demand that he and his family members in government quit immediately”, the Hindu reported.
HIDDEN PEAT: More than a third of all garden compost sold in the UK in 2021 was sourced from carbon-rich peatlands, the Guardian reported. The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) provided the figures in its response to a government consultation on a proposal to ban peat compost sales for gardeners by 2024, the paper said. It explained: “Peatlands cover just 3% of the planet’s surface but hold twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. The destruction and degradation of peatlands releases CO2 and drives the climate crisis. In the UK, 87% of peatlands are degraded and emit a combined 10m tonnes of CO2 a year.” A large share of the UK’s peat is imported from Ireland and other parts of the EU, the Guardian added.
CHILE AG EMERGENCY: Chile decided to extend a state of agricultural emergency for an additional three months after 27 mayors in the central drought-stricken part of the country demanded the government declare a “state of catastrophe”, MercoPress reported. The emergency will cover April, May and June and 231 affected communities in the regions of Coquimbo, Valparaiso, Metropolitan Santiago, O’Higgins and El Maule. In response to the megadrought, Chile’s energy ministry amended rules that regulate its hydropower sector “to ensure the equivalent of 650GWh [gigawatt hours] is always in reserve”, bnAmericas reported. Satellite images published by the Independent show Peñuelas Lake – located around 70 miles from Santiago that supplies 2 million people with water – has completely dried up.
- Burning up: the controversial biofuel threatening BC’s last inland rainforests – Brian J Barth, The Walrus
- Adriana Hoffmann, botanist who fought for Chile’s forests, dies at 82 – Manuela Andreoni, The New York Times
- ‘We feel safer’: how green energy is brightening refugee lives in Rwanda – Damian Carrington, The Guardian
- Tree harvesting is not the same as deforestation – Multiple authors, Nature Climate Change
New research examining Ethiopia’s Sustainable Land Management Project – “one of the world’s most ambitious restoration efforts to date” – found that land productivity in treated drought-affected areas grew by 13.5% – and by 3.1% in areas that were not affected. Combining satellite observations with relatively new impact evaluation methods to look at the effectiveness of the project, the researchers identified “important drought-buffering effects”. The study presented evidence of sustainable land management contributing to restoring land productivity and increasing resilience to “weather shocks” – such as drought – demonstrating that remote-sensing can “be incorporated into impact evaluation models to assess ecosystem restoration programmes”.
Improving biodiversity protection through artificial intelligence
A new study explored how artificial intelligence (AI) could be harnessed to improve methods for conserving biodiversity. The research presented a “novel framework” for how AI could be used to identify areas that should be protected to conserve species. The researchers explained: “Our methodology, conservation area prioritisation through artificial intelligence (CAPTAIN), quantifies the trade-off between the costs and benefits of area and biodiversity protection, allowing the exploration of multiple biodiversity metrics.” The tool “protects significantly more species from extinction than areas selected randomly or naively (such as based on species richness)”, the authors added.
Biodiversity effects of food system sustainability actions from farm to fork
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Halving food waste in the US could benefit global biodiversity by “more than half as much” as all Americans shifting to a sustainable diet, a new study found. According to the researchers, if food waste reduction was combined with a shift to sustainable diets, it could reduce the biodiversity footprint of US food consumption by roughly half. They combined high-resolution estimates of the US food systems’ biodiversity footprint with food system scenario modelling to look at how diet shifts and food waste reduction could impact nature loss. The authors concluded that their study could “help decision-makers understand the trade-offs we must navigate to balance human health, economics, and environmental sustainability and help consumers understand how their diets and food waste behaviours influence global biodiversity”.
In the diary
- 7 April: World Health Day
- 7 April: Towards Sustainable Food Systems: harmonisation of national and sub-national policies and governance
- 11-14 April: 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Africa
- 12-13 April: Third meeting of the Informal Advisory Group on Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne. Anastasiia Zagoruichyk also contributed to this issue. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]