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Stop damaging land or face climate catastrophe, major report warns

Humans must urgently stop chopping down rainforest, degrading soils and draining peatlands

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 07 August 2019 13:53 BST
Any genuine plan to combat climate change must tackle the state of the land, scientists say
Any genuine plan to combat climate change must tackle the state of the land, scientists say (Getty)

Humans need to stop abusing the land we live on if we want to avoid catastrophic levels of climate warming, scientists on the UN’s major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will warn at at a meeting in Geneva this week.

Soils are believed to sequester 1 per cent of the planet’s total carbon, but they once contained as much as 7 per cent. If land is farmed in a more sustainable way, carbon could be absorbed back into the soils, making them a carbon sink.

However, currently one-third of total emissions come from the land.

Researchers believe any genuine plan to combat climate change must tackle the state of the land and production of food. This means putting a stop to chopping down rainforest, degrading soils, killing wildlife and draining peatlands.

Kelly Levin, from the think tank World Resources Institute, told BBC News: “If we consider the climate problem hard now, just think about how much harder it will be without the land serving as a large sink for carbon dioxide emissions.”

Scientists will warn of increasing pressure on land to provide food, timber and plant materials for a growing population which will make meeting emissions targets even harder.

Professor Jane Rickson, an expert in climate change and soil erosion at Cranfield University, says this latest IPCC paper should give more evidence of how land degradation also aggravates climate change, leading to an escalating crisis.

She says: “Climate change will intensify soil erosion, compaction, loss of organic matter, loss of biodiversity, landslides and salinisation – many of which are irreversible.

“It’s important that the report considers the effects of climate change on the state of soil quality, and how soil responds to extreme events. Little is known about the effects of rising temperatures and heavier rainfall on soil condition – yet this determines how soils function in provision of food.”

Scientists believe around 33 per cent of arable land is now devoted to crops to feed animals.

Industrial agriculture relies on fossil fuels to create fertilisers and machinery to harvest crops and transport animals. Farmed animals also produce half of the world’s methane emissions.

Research last year found that meat and dairy companies could overtake the oil industry as the world’s biggest polluters by 2050.

Rob Percival, head of food and health policy at the Soil Association, said: “The intensification of farming has fuelled soil degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss – further intensification is not a solution to the challenges we face.

“To effectively tackle the climate crisis, we urgently need to move to farming systems that improve soil health and protect wildlife.

“Soil is critically important – humanity depends on it and it’s right that the IPCC recognises this along with calls to prioritise farming practices that actually improve our environment, such as agroforestry and mixed farming using extensive grass-based systems.”

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Scientists also say that natural forests – particularly ones in the tropics – need to be protected.

Earlier this year it was revealed a forest half the size of London should be planted in the UK every year. Covering 70,000 hectares with new woodland alongside other measures such as peatland restoration and low carbon farming would result in a net total of net zero farming emissions, according to the think tank Green Alliance.

This latest IPCC report is set to be released on 8 August 2019.

“I hope this report will raise awareness among all people about the threats and opportunities posed by climate change to the land we live on and which feeds us,” said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee.

“This report addresses all three UN Rio conventions – climate, biodiversity and desertification – and thus our report recognises the nexus of these global challenges and demonstrates the broad policy relevance of the IPCC’s work,” he said.

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