The triple challenge of our time: a stable climate, food security and space for nature

By William Baldwin-Cantello, Chief Adviser, Forests, WWF-UK

© Shutterstock / SantiPhotoSS / WWF

Averting dangerous climate change, feeding a growing global population a healthy diet and creating space for nature. That is the triple challenge of our time.

In the last few months, a wealth of warnings and new knowledge have emerged, including in a stark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), setting an urgent tone as climate negotiators meet in Poland for COP24.

From that IPCC report, we have learned that limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C rather than 2°C means 10 million fewer people exposed to the risks of sea level change. It means potentially saving 10–30% of coral reefs as opposed to completely wiping them out. It means half as many ecosystems will transition from their current state to another. It means hundreds of millions fewer people susceptible to poverty in the wake of climate change. The case for limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is clear and compelling.

Every half a degree matters.

We have also learned that populations of wildlife across the world have declined by 60% since 1970 — continuing a downward trend the Living Planet Report has been highlighting for decades. To put this into context, a decline of 60% in the human population today would be equivalent to emptying Africa, Europe, North and South America, Oceania and China of people.

The 2018 Living Planet Report also highlighted that agricultural expansion, and the food system at large, is the principal driver of this alarming loss of biodiversity. This is particularly apparent in forests. The expansion of commercial agriculture has been estimated to be responsible for 27% of global deforestation, with shifting agriculture linked to a further 24%. Food production is also responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector.

We need to respond to these warnings with solutions. And fast. The IPCC estimates that on current trajectories global temperature rise could reach 1.5°C as early as 2030.

Almost all future pathways that keep us to 1.5°C involve two things: shifting the agriculture and forest sectors from a source of emissions to a sink, and the widespread use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This is because current and historic emission levels mean it is inevitable that we will need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Improved land use practices in agriculture and reversing forest loss into forest gain are the most proven and readily available carbon-capture technologies on Earth. BECCS is a greater unknown and it is risky to rely on it without further understanding its impacts.

This reinforces the message of the land sector leaders at September’s Global Climate Action Summit, which called 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… to deliver up to 30% of the climate solutions needed by 2030” — otherwise known as the ‘30x30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge’. There were many strong commitments made by non-state actors as part of the 30x30 challenge, hoping to inspire more climate ambition from countries at COP24.

In fact, we are going to have to deliver on that 30x30 challenge, end deforestation and then go further in years to come. Across the published research that the IPCC reviewed they found that scenarios that keep us to 1.5°C involved a wide range of outcomes for forests including an up to one billion hectare expansion in forest cover — a potential increase roughly the size of China.

Is there room for an expansion of forest cover at that scale?

In our Trillion Trees partnership with WCS and BirdLife International, WWF-UK has adopted a vision of a world where one trillion trees have been better protected, saved from loss and restored across the world. Our analysis shows that there could be as much as 890 million hectares of degraded land worldwide that could be restored to tree cover, even after setting aside land for farming. Other research has estimated that forests could expand by up to 678 million hectares, with certain assumptions. These are ambitious figures, but there has never been a more pressing time for high ambition.

The exact figure is highly conditional on your assumptions about the future, but it is clear that there is space for significant forest expansion. The nature of those new or restored forests will significantly determine whether they also help to reverse the decline in wildlife populations — a key indicator of the health of our planet. They will need to fulfill rising demand for wood products and optimise carbon removal, but they should also be forests that are full of life. To achieve this massive acceleration in forest planting and regeneration in support of vibrant, biodiverse forests, we need to find integrated policy, finance, governance, technology, and ecosystem solutions.

But with global populations set to rise for decades to come, how can this be consistent with food security?

It won’t be if we don’t reform our food system. There are many reasons why our food system needs radical change, including that around 30% of food produced is wasted, we feed our livestock almost as much as we feed ourselves and we have degraded around a third of our agricultural land. And yet nearly one billion people worldwide go hungry or are malnourished. Rehabilitation of that degraded land can relieve pressure for further habitat conversion, as can greater productivity on existing farmland and more effective distribution and consumption of the food actually produced. And, there is one other major change that will need to take place.

All the evidence I have referred to so far highlights a common critical piece of the puzzle: diet shift. In wealthy countries, particularly, we eat more animal protein on average than is in a recommended healthy diet. If we shifted to World Health Organisation guidelines, for example, we could make a major contribution to achieving a 1.5°C world by reducing the land needed to feed us. Global adoption of a ‘flexitarian’ diet (in other words, a more plant-based diet) could reduce food system emissions by more than half. The trouble is, the impact of what we eat can be a difficult subject to discuss. Food can be an intimate expression of culture, a sign of increasing income, and a deeply personal choice. Nonetheless, it is important that an informed and productive discussion of the connection between food and climate takes place.

But first and foremost, the most important action we can take to limit any land-use trade-offs is to cut greenhouse gas emissions hard and fast. The earlier and the greater we reduce our emissions from all sources then the less we need carbon dioxide removal strategies and the less pressure there is on land.

That is why the outcome of COP24 this week must send a clear signal that governments will increase their emission reduction targets by 2020. To overcome the triple challenge, those commitments must be part of an integrated package of action to restore nature and redouble efforts to achieve the SDGs, including ending world hunger. This would be the New Deal for Nature and People we need.