Farming plays key role in UN climate push on land restoration

When the UN Climate Summit gets underway next week, it will be the focal point of mass protests and media coverage, but another global climate initiative is revving up that focuses on large-scale land restoration as a way to counter the advent and impact of climate change.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, slated to run from 2021 to 2030, highlights the importance of natural systems in climate stability — and elevates the role of sustainable agriculture in adapting to and mitigating climate change. A key conference on the initiative, hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum, will be held in New York on Sept. 28.

This “UN Decade has a clear call to action,” says Tim Christophersen, of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), who is coordinating the effort. The goal is to spark a “mass movement … to repair some of the damage we have done to the climate.”

Until now land has been a side issue in climate policy, which has focused largely on energy and other sectors. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) August special report, Climate Change and Land, was a “game-changer,” says Christophersen. The report considered “the whole land-climate system,” asserting that agriculture, forestry, and other land uses account for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The loss of forestlands — such as by burning the Amazon rainforest to expand agriculture — accelerates climate change. Fires emit carbon, trees that sequester carbon are lost, and unsustainable agriculture compounds the emissions. But the report also focuses on the role of nature in regulating climate, including the importance of intact forests for both area cooling and moisture circulation, which temper global warming. “It will change the frame as it trickles through the climate world,” Christophersen says.

With this more comprehensive approach, “the three UN conventions [on climate, biological diversity, and desertification] are finally coming together. We see a convergence of not only land and climate change but land, climate, and biodiversity,” he said. The UN Decade, initially proposed by El Salvador, aims to restore 350 million hectares of land — an area the size of the Indian subcontinent — by 2030.

An estimated 2 billion hectares — wetlands, savanna, forests, farmland, shorelines — have been degraded by human development, intensive agriculture, and other stressors, meaning the lands are no longer productive or significant carbon sinks. The loss of land productivity also has implications for people who depend on it for their livelihoods, prompting increased migration.

Given this vast terrestrial canvas, says Christophersen, “we need solutions to come full scale.” An important first step, he says, is to “eliminate climate-perverse subsidies” and shift to incentives for food production that build carbon in soils. This, he says, will contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation, as well as enhancing food and water security, stemming migration, and reducing rural poverty.

Musonda Mumba, head of UNEP’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Program, echoes the need to support sustainable agricultural approaches that build climate resilience. “Land degradation is closely related to unsustainable agricultural practices, some of which have included deforesting spaces,” she says. “The ripple effect of this includes loss of topsoils, compacted soils, and eventually infertile lands, further spiraling people into poverty” and limiting the capacity of these soils to sequester carbon.

The Decade on Ecosystem Restoration would cost an estimated $800 billion by 2030. Funding for restoration can come primarily from redirecting fiscal policy — including funds now steered to fossil fuel subsidies — and private finance. Research indicates that the returns on eco-restoration greatly exceed the investment, particularly when the costs avoided are taken into account. One widely cited study, for example, estimated that net benefits for restoration at this scale could be as high as $9 trillion.

“So far most of the larger conversation about climate adaptation and mitigation has centered around market-based solutions,” said Janene Yazzie, of the Diné Nation in New Mexico, who serves as an Advocate of Indigenous Rights engaged with the United Nations. She welcomes a move toward “nature-based solutions,” which, she says, reflects the focus of indigenous communities.

Yazzie says indigenous people play an important part in developing restoration strategies. “We’ve been harnessing not just traditional knowledge and wisdom, for all our traditions are place-based, but lived experiences. We now lack a lot of climate data for different ecosystems to know what conditions were like before development.” Oral histories from indigenous communities can help fill the gaps. Such knowledge, she says, can “inform a new form of environmental governance that protects and values our ecosystems and the functions they perform for sustaining all life.”

Patrick Worms, a senior policy adviser for World Agroforestry, says the Decade “is absolutely crucial to ensure that policymakers begin to understand that to manage the Earth system, they need to take and wear landscape-centric lenses. Managing our croplands, grasslands, and forests better will generate more food and fiber while drawing down stupendous quantities of carbon. At the end of this decade, we will be either on the way to hell or to fixing this planet. That’s how important it is.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.