The Climate Change Solution Under Our Noses
By Manuel Pulgar Vidal, leader of WWF’s global Climate and Energy Practice
Our planet’s outermost surface is so important, it bears its name: earth. It’s the foundation of forests, grasslands and other natural habitats and the medium that gives us food, medicine, clothes, fuel, and livelihoods. Unfortunately, our use and misuse of land accounts for a significant proportion of our total annual greenhouse gas emissions, yet it accounts for a paltry amount of climate funding. We cannot prevent the worst effects of climate change without improving the ways we use land.
Every minute, about 27 football pitches’ worth of forests are lost. Their destruction — and that of grasslands, mangroves and other habitats — emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, where they heat the planet. At the same time, habitat loss diminishes the earth’s capacity to pull those gases back into the ground.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement among farmers, executives, policymakers, financiers, consumers, voters, and more to fight climate change by conserving and restoring the earth and making it more resilient.
This September, thousands of these climate leaders are coming to San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. The event will bring together governors, mayors, legislators, CEOs, investors, researchers, and more from around the world to demonstrate progress, set more ambitious and measurable goals, and encourage national governments to go further faster.
As part of the Summit, we are issuing the 30X30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge: calling on businesses, states, city and local governments, and global citizens to take action for better forest and habitat conservation, food production and consumption, and land use, working together across all sectors of the economy to deliver up to 30% of the climate solutions needed by 2030.
While many businesses and local leaders have committed to scale up their use of renewable energy or set energy-use targets in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, fewer have factored land stewardship into their climate action plan. As a result, we’re challenging all businesses and local leaders to ensure that conserving and restoring lands — everything from eliminating deforestation in supply chains to reducing food waste — is factored into their strategies for addressing climate change.
Rainforests can seem an abstract concept to someone sitting in a city with no trees in sight, but even urbanites can take concrete actions right now to save land. Indeed, food production drives deforestation, most often to raise livestock and produce animal feed. Yet about a third of the food we produce is never eaten, representing the waste of an estimated 14 million square kilometers of land. Further, when food rots in landfills, it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Thus, by eating a balanced diet and wasting less food, anyone can alleviate pressure on land and reduce emissions directly.
Those closer to the land — farmers, ranchers, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities with support from financial institutions, governments, and businesses along the supply chain — can restore degraded lands while boosting their productivity, which alleviates the need to clear forests and other habitats for production. Research funded by WWF in Latin America estimates that rehabilitating land that has already been cleared of natural habitats, used, and abandoned in Brazil’s Cerrado savannah and Amazon rainforest can provide enough land to meet projected demand for beef and soy through 2040 without having to fell one more tree.
These stakeholders can also integrate practices on farms, ranches and commercial forests that reinvigorate soil. Soil is a habitat unto itself, replete with microbial fauna and flora that serve as its engine. The more life in the soil, the more fertile it is, and the more effectively it can pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and turn them into food, fiber, and fuel.
Shifting production practices takes a lot of time and money, however, and farmers are more likely to be poor and hungry than any other profession. That leaves it to governments, financial institutions, and large multinational commodity buyers to support the rehabilitation of land and the transition of practices. Through innovative financing mechanisms, lenders, investors and large buyers can diffuse risk and foster investment in more sustainable practices. State and local governments should set and enforce habitat conservation laws and work with businesses to set a fair and level playing field for producers.
In addition, it’s critical to engage Indigenous Peoples and local communities and protect their rights, as they are both some of the most effective stewards of the land and among those most directly harmed by habitat loss and degradation. Indeed, World Resources Institute has reported that indigenous and community lands store about 25 percent of the world’s aboveground carbon.
We also need innovative technology to foster conservation. Today, paper-based systems and lax oversight create blind spots in supply chains so big that they’re visible from space, literally. Satellites can monitor protected areas and distributed ledgers can move bills of lading into the cloud. Working together, these systems can enable any company or consumer to verify where and how their food, paper, clothing or other goods were produced.
Finally, the scientific community, NGOs, and businesses can develop science-based targets against which companies can measure how much greenhouse gas they’ve saved by conserving and restoring land and making it more resilient.
In 2015, national governments took a stand against climate change in Paris, but those commitments, if fully met, will only deliver one third of the emissions reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. We need to do more.
This September, businesses, state and local leaders, NGOs and citizens around the world will have that opportunity. Together, we can spur national governments to accelerate their efforts by taking a stand to protect what we all stand on — earth.