Our Notes: IPCC Climate Change & Land Report

By Michele J. Aquino

Last month’s IPCC report on Climate Change and Land (August 8, 2019) does not paint an optimistic picture of what’s in store around the world as our planet continues to warm. For those of us working in the field of sustainability and climate, the key takeaways from the report are not surprising. While difficult to read, yet again, we do not believe we should give up our hopes of helping preserve our earth for future generations. In fact, for my team, each IPCC report motivates us to work harder to find innovative ways to help clients and society, even with small, piece-meal solutions.

This recent IPCC report not only summarizes projected effects of our changing climate; the authors also discuss adaptation and mitigation response options. Here are some of our notes from the response options discussed:

  • To be most effective, policy measures and actions must be taken at local, regional, and national levels. Multiple response types are needed across several sectors (e.g. agriculture, pasture, forests, and water)---and response integration is recommended. This means that collaboration is key; solutions cannot be deployed in silos. All sectors must become engaged in the work, including governments, NGOs, and the private sector. When an initiative proves promising, the findings need to be disseminated widely and applied/adapted for other locales. To create integrated responses, organizations must be mindful of both anticipated and unintended side-effects (or co-benefits) of the work.

  • Two areas in particular offer potential benefits: soil organic carbon management and reduction of food loss/waste. These are worth noting, not only because of the environmental benefits, but also because there are fast-growing movements happening right now in both of these areas of work. In fact, numerous large food manufacturing organizations have active, scaled initiatives to support regenerative agriculture (e.g. diverse farm operations that integrate rotational livestock grazing) at the beginning of supply chains, and food waste prevention measures at the end of their product life-cycles. Notable companies that have activated projects in this space include General Mills and Danone.

  • While local, customized solutions are needed to account for the great diversity of challenges facing different types of land, generally speaking, the IPCC appears to recommend land degradation prevention efforts ahead of land remediation. This may seem nuanced, but we take this to mean: prevent further desertification (or loss of productive topsoil), where feasible, on lands currently in production. Let’s build that land’s capacity to grow more into the future before we direct resources to restoring land that is already degraded to the point that it is no longer being used for agricultural purposes. This is a call for farmers to partner with their value chains and employ the very best land management practices for their region and type of farm operation.

  • Finally, the IPCC highlights how the consideration of co-benefits is key to driving uptake of solutions. Let’s think of co-benefits as positive side-effects or associated benefits that come along with taking actions to protect an ecosystem service, such as soil. For example, a new deforestation policy/program might also decrease the use of wood used as a cooking fuel (i.e. wood burning stoves). While the forest conservation may help build that area’s resilience to extreme weather and contribute to emissions mitigation, there is also an ancillary public health co-benefit if families in the area shift to burning different cooking fuels that are not associated with smokey indoor air conditions.

    Co-benefits, in aggregate and in combination with the primary objectives of a land-use solution, will often make the initiative more attractive or feasible. Earth Forward Group considers this a call to action for organizations to conduct thorough cost-benefit analysis in pre-project planning. Such studies consider ancillary social, environmental, and economic benefits when estimating the total value of a climate change solution. By accounting for such a broader scope of ecosystem benefits, or assigning an approximate dollar value to them, organizations can build more accurate projections of the true project impacts. Consideration of co-benefits can help ensure limited resources are efficiently utilized in our efforts to build climate-resilient lands.

This recent special report from the IPCC focused on land. This month (September), a third special report of the sixth assessment cycle* is due to be released, which will focus on the earth’s precious water and frozen areas. A draft of the next special report has already been leaked. The leaked draft indicates that, not unlike August’s land report, the IPCC predicts that societies around the globe will continue to see drastic ecosystem effects from our changing climate. We hope the focus on water will continue to build public awareness about the importance of not taking our water resources for granted. We can be sure that these special reports will be discussed in New York during the UN Climate Action Summit later this month, as well as in the mass media (especially as US presidential campaigning continues to draw public attention toward climate and resiliency issues).

*Assessment cycles are essentially rounds of consolidating research and climate modeling to build an updated consensus on what is happening to our Earth. The IPCC’s sixth assessment report (AR6) is expected in the spring of 2022.