By Inge Jonckheere, Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) are responsible for nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet, and despite billions of dollars committed to the cause, little headway has been made in recent years on reducing emissions in the sector.
The bleak finding comes from a new report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which I helped co-author. It found that 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from AFOLU in 2019, a figure that is largely unchanged from the last estimate in 2014. AFOLU is the third largest sector for emissions, coming just after the energy sector and industry; in Africa, Latin America, and South-East Asia, it is the single largest emitting sector.
Significant efforts have been made over the last decade to reduce the emissions from AFOLU activities, but recent trends in land use, diets and population growth have held back progress. Deforestation is a huge driver of emissions, releasing the carbon stored by trees back into the environment. Forests have been felled and turned into cropland and pastures to feed growing and more affluent populations. Livestock also contribute to methane emissions through their natural digestion process. However, they are increasingly popular: in fact, emissions growth in agriculture was largely driven by a 12 percent increase in meat consumption between 2010 and 2020.
In other words, the sector is facing a perfect storm.
The IPCC report found that, across all sectors, human-made greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high. This needs to change if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century – the bare minimum needed to avoid catastrophe. We have very little time left to reverse this trend in forestry and agriculture, but there are options that we can try.
The first is by prioritising the protection of forests and wetlands, which are natural storehouses of carbon. Climate policies that limit deforestation and encourage reforestation, afforestation, and restoration have been shown to have positive impacts on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Technology is key and should be used to great effect. FAO helps governments collect, store, and analyse satellite and field data in order to assess forests and natural resources and monitor land changes. A key issue with forest monitoring is that progress is hard to track, but through accurate satellite imagery, governments can make better informed decisions. FAO has also made high resolution data freely available and accessible to all through online web portals and a cloud-based processing platform.
There are actions we can take to mitigate the effects of climate change in all sectors (so also energy, industry, transport), but we must be realistic. Sadly, some change is irreversible, and we also need to channel our energies into supporting countries and communities adapt to the effects of climate change.
Governments must reach a decision at COP27 in November 2022 to unlock funding that not only helps countries curb emissions and adapt to climate impacts, but also addresses the economic and cultural losses and damages that cannot be avoided. This funding is also needed to explore and implement more sustainable options for energy and heating.
Policies and programmes that strengthen vulnerable communities’ resilience to the impacts of climate change are vital. FAO is working with the Adaptation Fund on projects across the world, including training communities on drought and flood management and sustainable farming techniques, as well as the implementation of early warning systems for natural disasters.
With a collective effort, the AFOLU sector has the potential to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Measures to increase afforestation can help store great amounts of CO2, and other well-designed policies can benefit biodiversity, help us adapt to climate change, secure livelihoods, improve food security and more sustainable wood supplies.
World temperatures risk rising by 3.3°C to 5.4°C by 2100 if current pledges are not implemented, and in the absence of new climate policies. Governments, companies and individuals have a responsibility to step up and make a renewed effort. This means protecting and restoring forests and agricultural land, prioritising projects and policies that will mitigate the effects of climate change and help vulnerable communities adapt to its effects. The next few years are critical, and it has never been clearer: the time for action is now.