To save the planet, protect forests now, UN says

Last year, the IPCC warned of an imminent climate crisis. This year, it makes a plea to save forests before time runs out.

Published 8 Aug 2019, 13:20 BST
Mian Gu Village on China's Nu River is a government housing project designed to encourage people ...
Mian Gu Village on China's Nu River is a government housing project designed to encourage people living in the mountains to move down to the river and reduce deforestation.
Photograph by Adam Dean, Nat Geo Image Collection

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change annual report, released this morning, stresses the need to quickly and drastically change how the world manages land.

To fight climate change, University of Virginia environmental scientist Deborah Lawrence says sustainable strategies should be less like a silver bullet, narrowly hitting a single target, and more like a silver buckshot, that explodes on impact and scatters pellets in different directions.

“Climate change is such a threat, we need to be searching for every possible angle [to fight it],” she says.

The IPCC report represents an annual report card and recommendation list for how people, scientists, and policymakers should shape their priorities. Here are the main takeaways from the most recent report.

Our food production system needs a major overhaul

Between extreme weather conditions like droughts and floods, an increasing demand for biofuels, and a growing population, a warming world brings the possibility of a major food crisis, the report warns.

Increasingly, securing enough food to feed a global population that’s expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050 has become a concern for policymakers. But scientists are now warning that if we continue cutting down forests with abandon to increase food production, climate change will invariably worsen.

Around the world, extreme weather events are severely altering the landscape by eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, and turning once-fruitful soils to dust.

An estimated 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, it says, are caused by agriculture, food production like raising cattle, and deforestation. Half of the world’s human-made methane—a dangerous greenhouse gas—comes from producing rice and raising cattle.

Experts say if we act quickly and ambitiously, we won’t have to choose between forests and food.

Smart agriculture takes the stage

“The bottom line will be that we need to find better ways to manage what we already have,” says Bruce Stein, chief scientist at the National Wildlife Federation.

“A lot of farming historically has almost amounted to mining soil,” he says of what’s required to pave the way for croplands.

He points to techniques like regenerative agriculture as a sustainable farming option. The term describes a holistic approach to growing crops that incorporates integrating tree cover, using cover crops, rotating agriculture, and relying on composting to naturally improve farmland topsoil.

The Yurúa River meanders near the Peru-Brazil border. Illicit logging in the area’s protected forests feeds timber such as big-leaf mahogany to global markets. Logging also threatens the survival of the country’s estimated 15 remaining isolated tribes.

“We don’t end with fertiliser,” Lawrence says of advancing farming technology.

Precision farming is another example of a sustainable farming practice that uses satellite imagery to pinpoint the exact amount of fertiliser and water a crop needs, rather than blanketing a field in water or chemicals.

Everyone needs a seat at the table

Notably, this IPCC report is the first to recommend bolstering Indigenous land ownership rights as a climate change mitigation strategy.

“For the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released today recognises that securing our rights is a critical solution to the climate crisis,” says a joint statement released today by Indigenous community leaders.

Indigenous communities, particularly those in the Amazon, have long struggled to be granted land titles for their homes. The lack of titles creates legal grounds for companies interested in using their land’s resources to claim the land as their own.

By strengthening Indigenous rights, the report says forests can be better managed for carbon storage. Indigenous people prevent mining and timber industries from taking root on their lands, and their localised agricultural methods are often more sustainable than those practiced by large companies.

We don’t have time to waste

Reducing car emissions and transitioning to renewable energy sources both help slow the release of emissions. Deforestation, however, not only emits carbon, but it also destroys an important tool—the trees—that helps clean the air of those emissions.

The average tree absorbs about 48 pounds of carbon a year, and large swathes of forest like the Amazon rainforest are considered carbon sinks, in that the region stores much more carbon than it emits.

That benefit lasts as long as the forest is kept intact, but researchers in Brazil are desperately trying to warn politicians and the public that the region could reach a tipping point. Deforested beyond repair, the Amazon may not be able to recover and could significantly alter the world’s climate.

What can we do?

Asking farmers to adopt new farming techniques requires money, and learning new skill sets can be daunting for many.

“I think the biggest obstacle is often psychological. People are used to doing things the same way,” Stein says. “Even in the conservation community, we’re very conservative about the way we manage lands, and we’re going to have to reexamine a lot of our practices.”

This IPCC report is just one of many research publications saying individuals should change the way they eat to support a healthy planet. Cutting back on eating meat and reducing food waste are two areas the report highlights as a way individuals can live more sustainably.

“We should do what we can. There’s no reason to not simply act. We can’t solve the problem, but we can get pretty far,” says Lawrence.

She added that if we want to save the planet, civic involvement is critical, especially voting. “You can’t not vote [in elections], and everyone should be thinking about climate change when they vote.”

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