Greenland used to fulfill its role as one of planet Earth’s biggest air conditioners. Its white ice cover reflected the light and heat from the sun off of the planet’s surface, cooling it in the process.
But now, because rising temperatures have turned Greenland grey, the dark snow attracts heat rather than repels it. For the moment, our air conditioner has turned heater, with the temperature set on “High”.
Time to act before our window closes
Greenland reaching its tipping point is one example of the potentially irreversible consequences that will result from exceeding planetary boundaries, including that of climate change.
It is Johan Rockström, chair of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) steering committee, who put forward this example when interviewed for the newly released and much anticipated documentary, Before the Flood, produced by UN Ambassador for Peace Leonardo DiCaprio.
Rockström reaffirms that if we continue to produce and consume at the scale and pace that we do today, we will experience a 3 to 4 degree increase in temperature. This increase, in turn, will cause agriculture around the equator to collapse, making us unable to responsibly feed humanity. The results are likely to be widespread hunger, poverty and extreme political unrest.
But, opportunities to reverse this decline do exist: “The window is open, but barely open, to transition back into a stable planet,” says Rockström and points out the historic political commitment to climate change mitigation represented by the Paris Climate Agreement.
The unexplored wins of agriculture
Rockström goes on to speak of scalable, high-tech clean energy solutions such as wind and solar, which represent important opportunities for drastically reducing carbon emissions. But the film leaves him no opportunity to point out another major avenue for climate change mitigation: agriculture.
In fact, Rockström and other leading scientists have recently pointed out that changing the way we produce and consume foodcan transform agriculture from one of the planet’s prime vultures to one of its prime virtues. Such a transformation will require prioritizing sustainability over productivity and addressing how agriculture uses land, water and nutrients as well as how it can help reduce carbon emissions.
A number of landscape restoration practices are considered to have huge potential for quelling rising global temperatures. At the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum, scientists will discuss unexplored big agricultural wins for climate change mitigation, including growing trees on farms, establishing wetlands and peatlands, improving grasslands and binding carbon in soil.
Carbon sequestration in soils, especially, is gaining recognition as a promising solution that can be implemented at large scales. Last year, the global 4pour1000 initiative was established with the explicit goal of increasing the soil organic carbon stored in soils by 0.4% per year to halt the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Already, scientists are working to make this goal reality by providing decision makers in Africa with tools that can help them target and measure efforts to further farming practices, such as conservation agriculture, that converts farmland into carbon sinks.
Can we farm our way out of this?
Before the Flood places itself into increasingly clear-cut discourse: Climate change is happening, and the consequences can be observed right now. But, solutions—whether clean energy technologies or improved agricultural practices—do exist, and if we urgently take action, planetary degradation can be stopped.
However, the biggest question that remains is how we can achieve such solutions, at what scale and pace. The film ends with an appeal to change consumption patterns as well as policy, something scientists support by injecting evidence and solutions into decision-making processes and dialogues such as the Global Landscapes Forum.
But is it enough to make Greenland white again? Or in the words of Rockström: “I think we have tipped the world towards a sustainable future. The fear is—are we doing it too slowly?”