I’m heading to Bonn in hopes of promoting international focus on the land sector – also known as “agriculture, forestry and other land use” (AFOLU). For the most part, the land sector involves the conversion of “natural” or un-managed land (like forests) to an area used for food and/or material production (like a farm). This process involves burning forests, tilling soil, and other energy intensive labor. Shockingly, these activities account for almost a quarter (24%) of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions .
Let me be clear, these activities are necessary for the survival and well-being of our species. But they could be done more efficiently. It is critical that we better manage a sector that is one of the largest sources of GHG emissions in the world, second only to the electricity and heating sector. So how do we achieve this?
As countries prepare to finalize a climate agreement in Paris this December, they are releasing specific action plans that outline how they intend to reduce global warming emissions. These are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which countries submit to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
A country’s action plan on emissions mitigation is reflective of where their priorities lay. As agricultural activities generally dominate developing countries’ (like Ethiopia and Mexico) emissions, land sector focus is expected to be of primary concern. For instance, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector contributes to more than 88% of their total emissions. Unsurprisingly, they intend to reduce 86% of their emissions through agricultural intensification (reducing the expansion of agriculture into forests) and increasing forest cover.
However, as INDCs roll out one by one, it is evident that developed countries (like the US and Canada) aren’t giving much attention to the land sector. At first glance, this seems understandable. Most developed countries’ emissions are sourced in transportation and industrial sectors. But the land sector is unique. It covers forests, which sequester (or absorb) carbon dioxide (CO2). While tropical forests of developing countries are widely known as hotspots for biodiversity and are highly studied, there is significantly less literature on the composition and contributions of the temperate and boreal forests of developed countries. Literature that does exist suggests that better land use management could significantly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The US, for instance, has one of the greatest potentials to reduce it’s emissions through land sector actions like stopping the over-use of fertilizer, consuming less beef, reducing food waste, reforestation of degraded land . Russia, a country boasting the largest forest area, also has a responsibility to maintain and manage its CO2-absorbing forests. In order to achieve real global emissions reductions, it is imperative these countries better manage their land sectors
For countries to reach a climate agreement in Paris this December, there must first exist an agreement text. All participating countries must negotiate the terms and definitions of a document they are willing to agree upon (more on this in a later blog). An event will be held in Bonn Germany this June that will bring country representatives together to hammer out the details of the agreement. Technically, the event is known as the the Forty-Second Session of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 42) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 42), as well as the June session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AdP2-9). But most people just call it SB 42.
I will be heading there to promote a study I worked on with the director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, Doug Boucher, at Union of Concerned Scientists. Our paper, Halfway There? What the Land Sector Can Contribute to Closing the Emissions Gap, presents research on how countries may reduce their emissions through land sector reforms by 2020 and 2030. It is our hope is that negotiators and country representatives will seriously address this key source of both emissions and emissions sequestration.