Land Use Tweaks Can Halve CO2 Emissions Gap

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A new report, “Halfway There? What the Land Sector Can Contribute to Closing the Emissions Gap Post-2020,” contributes some very useful measurement schemes that will benefit nations beginning to calculate their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) prior to the critical Paris UN climate change meeting (COP21) this December. These metrics will aid in bridging the gap between reductions that countries have so far pledged and additional useful pledges.

Economic mitigation potentials ( Boucher, who runs the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and colleague Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon have surveyed the most recent scientific literature to quantify greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be made by adapting current land uses.

While fossil energy use produces much more GHG than other causes, current thinking says we need to reduce every emissions source possible in order to prevent harm from climate change. Business as usual just won’t do it. One of the other major sources (roughly a quarter of all global emissions, this study reports) is land use alteration. Emissions involve deforestation, peatlands, methane from cattle, nitrogen from overfertilization, and other human activities.

Conversely, mitigating these changes increases natural carbon sequestration, doubling potential benefits. Boucher explains how:

“The land sector is unique in its ability to suck up carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soils and trees. The proactive nature of the land sector makes it different from all other emitters.”

The United Nations Environment Programme estimated last year that total annual global emissions are about 54 billion tons of CO2 equivalent. The organization forecast an emissions gap of 8–10 Gt CO2eq in 2020 and 14–17 Gt CO2eq in 2030.

Climate mitigation potentials of AFOLU sectors ( results of Boucher and Ferretti-Gallon’s UCS study came out this week. They found that mitigating emissions and increasing natural land-based sequestration (carbon sinks) from the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector would make very some important differences. In fact, adjustments could close half of the emissions gap.

The research looked at the largest polluters in the land use sector: Brazil, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the 28 countries of the European Union, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and the United States. These nations accounted for 57% of world greenhouse gases released from land use changes in 2010.

Post-2020 mitigation potentials of AFOLU ( United States has the highest potential for reducing land use emissions by both 2020 and 2030. Why? Basically, because we are behind other nations that have already started making serious investments in this area. The US could cut net emissions by 2 gigatons by 2020 and by 3 gigatons in 2030. Here’s how:

  • Decreasing emissions from livestock, fertilizer, and soil;
  • Reducing food waste;
  • Adapting dietary patterns to reduce consumption of high-emissions foods such as beef, which has also been implicated in poor public health and premature death;
  • Retaining the powerful carbon sinks in forests and agricultural soils; and
  • Increasing sequestration through reforestation.

The higher-income developing countries (Mexico, Brazil, China, etc.) have already slowed deforestation and reforested on their own. Countries in earlier stages of development will need international support. The analysis by the UCS team will help determine the climate-related finance the developed world could contribute to achieve realistic goals.

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