Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired the country’s chief of the National Institute of Space Research in early August, after the space agency announced a spike in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Bolsonaro — who wants to open up more of the jungle for agriculture — called the satellite observations “lies.”
The data certainly don’t reflect a sustainable use of the densely forested tropical land, much to Bolsonaro’s chagrin: Between August 2017 and July 2018, Brazil’s space agency documented 2,910 square miles of loss — an area about half the size of Connecticut.
The story of the Amazon — in which one Brazilian state lost an area of rainforest larger than West Virginia by 2003 — is reflected around the globe. A new major U.N. climate report entitled “Climate Change and Land” details that human land use now impacts over 70 percent of the ice-free land on Earth; and since 1961, natural lands equaling around two-thirds the size of Australia have been converted into agriculture. The planet’s forests, rangelands, and greater vegetation, however, play a dominant role in stabilizing the Earth’s climate, as land systems absorb around a quarter of human-generated carbon emissions — emissions that are presently skyrocketing.
The world’s natural land is a “great gift to society,” said Louis Verchot, a lead author of the newly released report, in a call with reporters.
But the way we use land, notably by cutting down forests and replacing them with pastureland crowded with over 1 billion methane-belching cows, also contributes around 23 percent of the planet’s human-created greenhouse gases.
Released Thursday morning, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report — developed by 103 experts from 52 countries — concluded that major shifts in how humans use land can play a major role in limiting the planet’s warming this century to an extremely ambitious (and currently unrealistic) target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above 19th-century temperatures. The potential options necessitate increasing forest by at least some 2 to 3 million square miles while reducing pasture land by similar amounts. (Millions of acres of available agricultural land, instead, could be allocated to grow crops for energy, while also capturing the carbon created when they’re burned, known as Bioenergy with Capture and Storage, or BECCS).
The greater goal is to allow farmers to still produce bounties of food, while letting carbon-absorbing forests prosper and decreasing the potent emissions from carbon-belching cows.
Here are some valuable ideas to take away from the report.
1. Forests are a proven, effective technology
Engineers have researched, assessed, and developed novel ideas for removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and storing this carbon underground. None of these expensive technologies, however, exist on large scales or even exist at all.
But trees are profoundly adept at sucking carbon out of the air. And they largely grow by themselves.
“It’s the only technology that’s currently available to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at scale,” said Will Turner, an ecologist and senior vice president at Conservation International.
“It’s a tool that’s available to many countries,” Turner, who had no role in the report, added.
This is especially true in the tropics, home to dense forests, peatlands, and soils teeming with carbon. Significantly reducing deforestation here will make a big dent in Earth’s growing carbon problem. “If you’re concerned about the biggest bang for your buck, it is tropical deforestation and the conversion of peatlands,” said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.
2. Forests can’t be planted just anywhere
Millions of square miles of land across the world are now agricultural land, and people depend on these lands for food. So, reforestation has to be a delicate process, one that often (on local levels) involves identifying lands that are unproductive and will not challenge anyone’s food security.
“It’s got to be like tending a garden,” said Seymour, who had no role in the IPCC report.
“You can’t just plant trees all over the place. You have to do it thoughtfully,” added Turner.
Replanting forests means planting the right trees in the right places (so water-gulping exotic trees don’t dry out the land), and not alienating farmers from the land, noted Seymour.
3. It’s getting hottest on land
The IPCC report found that “since the pre-industrial period, the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature.”
Temperatures on land have increased by about 1.5 Celsius (2.7 F) since the late 1800s, while overall global temps — which include temperatures over the cooler oceans — have averaged out to around 0.87 C above preindustrial temperatures.
The implication is that as the overall globe continues its accelerated temperature rise, land will heat up faster. As projected, this means more heat waves, melted ice sheets, and persistent, large-scale drought.
Trees, however, are excellent at tempering heat, both by releasing water vapor (evapotranspiration) and providing shade.
“Trees modulate the extremes,” explained Seymour, both in urban and rural areas. “Keeping forests around are an important adaption to a changing climate.”
4. Eat more vegetables
Eating less meat and more vegetables will aid the land transition away from pastureland.
“That’s something everybody can do,” noted Seymour. “We all need to eat less ruminant protein.”
“It doesn’t mean everyone has to be a vegan,” she added.
And, of course, your parents were right: Consuming more vegetables is a superb idea.
“If there are dietary changes toward more plant-based [diet] … there’s a double benefit,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a NASA scientist and lead author of the report. “Those diets are more healthy as well. This is a very positive message coming from the report.”
5. Avoid plastic and wasting food
A whopping 25 to 30 percent of food produced is lost or wasted, the report found. This is true not just globally, but in the U.S., where the Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted.
That’s a vast amount of wasted cropland.
To boot, the report suggests slashing carbon emissions from the packaging, retail, and storage of food, noted Rosenzweig. Plastic production has quadrupled in the last 40 years, and the manufacture of the oil-based material carries a huge carbon burden.
6. Forests are a benefit multiplier
Preserving or regrowing forests, coastal vegetation, and grassy rangelands don’t just absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The benefits multiply.
“You get emissions reduction, biodiversity, and economic opportunities,” said Lynn Scarlett, the vice president for Policy and Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy.
Revegetated land reestablishes habitats for native species and invites people back into natural areas. She points to The Nature Conservancy’s protection of some 18,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta.
“It’s win, win, win,” said Scarlett, who had no role in the report.
7. Don’t feel helpless
Slashing the planet’s carbon emissions in the coming decade and beyond will take an unprecedented global effort that involves both curbing carbon emissions and transforming the way humanity uses land. “Limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” IPCC co-chair Jim Skea admitted last year.
But there’s reason to not feel helpless. Even small, individual actions, like being more responsible about food waste or using AC more efficiently, do matter. Scarlett suggests adopting this attitude: “‘I’m part of the power of many — each action I take can contribute to the whole’.”
This also means voting for the future you want, noted Turner. “Individuals are the most powerful thing on the planet,” he said. “But it’s only realized when they act together.”
With Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at their highest levels in at least 800,000 years and now rising at rates that are unprecedented in both the historic and geologic record, the planet is responding with increases in extreme weather, melting ice sheets, and drought.
“The best time to solve the climate crisis is decades ago,” said Turner. “The second best time to solve it is right now.”