Today’s new report by the IPCC is the most comprehensive scientific assessment of the relationship between climate change and land. Governments have spent the last week negotiating the contents of the summary for policymakers, which will set the scene for climate action in landscapes around the world for years to come.

Humans exploit 72% of the ice-free land surface globally. We are therefore directly responsible for the fate of this land, and all life that exists within it. Unfortunately, the way we use and manage land is driving significant harm that both threatens the survival of millions of species and undermines our own life-support systems.

The report confirms that agriculture, forestry and other land uses produce almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Land use change, or the conversion of natural ecosystems, is also one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss (as determined by the year’s IPBES report). The climate and biodiversity crises are two sides of the same coin.

However, climate change mitigation efforts to date have largely neglected land and ecosystems. To put things into perspective, only a fraction of global climate finance – an estimated 2% to 3% – has gone towards tackling emissions from land use. Part of the reason for this is the complexity of the relationship between climate change and land:

  1. Land is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gas emissions;
  2. On land, both natural habitats and agricultural systems are victims of climate change
  3. People rely on land for food, fibre, and a host of other essential goods and services whose supply depends on healthy and resilient natural systems.

We need to fundamentally change our relationship with land, such that we can rapidly reduce emissions, increase carbon sequestration and storage, protect nature, whilst meeting our own material needs.

As a first step, we must get nature into our climate plans. The UK Government has made a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The protection and restoration of key habitats, such as peatlands, saltmarshes, and others identified in our “carbon in nature rich areas” map  will play a key role in getting us there.

Second, we must end unsustainable land-management practices, such as burning peatlands, that drive high levels of emissions and lead to habitat deterioration.

Third, and perhaps hardest of all, we urgently need a new approach to food and farming. In some places, such as tropical rainforests or steppe grasslands, this means protecting our remaining intact ecosystems from agricultural expansion – this is a no brainer, given the importance of these places for nature, and as carbon stores. One third of all food produced is wasted, we need to change societies attitude to value and celebrate good food more whilst at the same time slashing food loss and waste to reduce emissions and ease pressure on land. We also need to make production more sustainable, so that farming and nature can thrive together. Our increasing understanding of the evidence points to the importance of nature in underpinning our food production, from pollinating crops and predating crop pests to the soil biota that cycles nutrients, draws down carbon and improves soil structure. And we also need to think much harder about what we eat, and the impact that this has, with a future diet that includes less but better meat and dairy a central part of the fight against climate and ecological breakdown.

Finally, we must also demand urgent action from our Government to minimize the negative impacts of our imports (particularly of commodities such as soy, palm oil, beef, timber, cocoa, etc.), many of which come from tropical landscapes with high deforestation rates (as shown in our Risky Business joint report with WWF).

The UK has a real opportunity to show political and action-oriented leadership on this critical issue ahead of its likely presidency of the UNFCCC Climate Conference in 2020. We need to take urgent action to protect and restore key sites at home, reform agricultural systems to deliver for nature, carbon and people, and minimize our ecological and carbon footprint overseas.

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Photo is of RSPB Forsinard by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland contains the largest single expanse of blanket bog found anywhere in the world, covering 4,000 square kilometres.  Drainage and ploughing for non-native, commercial tree planting in the 1980's damaged large areas of the Flows and put the peatland carbon store at risk. 2,600 hectares are now under restoration yet some 2 million trees still need to be removed and the land re-wetted to restore bog habitat and secure its carbon

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