August 25, 2019

IPCC on Climate Change and Land

A Nagaraj

THE ‘special report on climate change and land’, (SRCCL), was recently adopted at the 50th session of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at Geneva. Two of its recommendations in particular have drawn popular global attention-one calling for a sustainability-driven transformation in agriculture, especially focusing on reduction of GHG emissions and the other, emphasising the role of transforming diets to plant-based ones, with a steep reduction in meat consumption.

The report refers to land in an inclusive sense, dealing with both land per se, in terms of soil, land use and land use change, including permafrost melting, desertification and land degradation, as well as the fact that “land is the principal basis of key and significant ecosystem services, beginning with agriculture and forests.” One of its key assessments is that extreme events due to global warming would lead to increased land degradation from floods, soil erosion, and drought. This would severely impact food production and food security, with crop yields and livestock productivity being particularly threatened in tropical and sub-tropical regions. India of course is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and is already experiencing the impacts of extreme events arising from climate variability. It is estimated that the economic value of loss and damage for India due to climate change is likely to be reach 1.8 per cent of its GDP by 2050. The report also provides evidence that, across the world, millions of people living in already degraded and desertified areas are negatively affected by climate change. For India, some studies estimate the cost of land degradation to be as high as 2.5 per cent of India’s GDP in 2014-15 and 15 per cent of the Gross Value Added from the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors.  The report also draws attention to the intensification of land use and land conversion for commercial crop production and livestock raising, to deforestation, and to land degradation as sources that lead to increased GHG emissions.

It is estimated that agriculture, forestry and land-use change (AFOLU) together contribute approximately 23 per cent of global net anthropogenic emissions, from carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Sustainable agriculture is identified as one of the key response measures alongside action to reverse land degradation. The report urges that there are considerable benefits to be gained from massive “near-term” action.

The report though features much that should be of concern to developing countries. A major feature of the summary for policy makers(SPM) of the report (that contains the key policy findings) is the almost total neglect of differentiation. In the SPM, adaptation and mitigation are almost always used together, when in fact the scope for mitigation from land-based activities is much higher in the developed countries. In most of the developing world adaptation is the real issue, with agriculture, the key livelihood source for millions of small and marginal farmers and pastoralists, where emissions-intensive practices are considerably lower, but who are seriously affected by desertification and land degradation. By introducing concepts such as “global food systems”, the report also leans towards attributing emissions from pre-and post-production activities too (including drying, storage, transport to markets, etc.) to the AFOLU sector, leading to an apparently “higher” carbon footprint for it. Such assessments of emissions at a “system” level have not been made for any other sector in the IPCC so far, apart from the fact that the developed world is by far the major source of emissions from such activities. When the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study, on which the SRCCL figures are also based, was released last year, global media ran headlines claiming that “cows emit more than cars”.

Another instance of the lack of differentiation, relates to the recommendations to reduce meat consumption and food wastage. Though, the global per capita meat availability was approximately 43kg per person in 2014, countries in Asia and the whole of Africa didn’t even come close to the halfway mark (India was 3.7 kg!) while the figure for industrialised countries (as the FAO referred to them) was around 80 kg per person. An excessive emphasis on reducing meat consumption will clearly affect developing countries disproportionately whose population needs to increase its protein intake, while also affecting incomes and livelihoods of the small producers who dominate production in the livestock sector. Emphasis on emissions reduction in livestock could also affect the modernisation of India’s bovine economy that is dominated by very small herd sizes, low milk yield per animal, and disproportionately large total numbers, compared to the developed countries.

In similar vein, the SPM constantly refers together to food loss and food wastage. The former refers to losses in production during and after harvesting, while the latter refers to wastage of food in the post-production phase, especially in relation to consumption. Doing so clearly fails to see the importance of food loss to the global South, both for farmers and consumers, and should in fact be a part of adaptation in agriculture. 

Other economic considerations in the report fare no better in terms of equity. Yield gaps in crop production, for instance, are not considered as a serious development deficit. Surprisingly, in the chapter on food security, bridging yield gaps are considered primarily as a mitigation option, especially in reducing land use for agriculture. The economic models used to model scenarios or pathways of the future including emissions reductions, referred to as Shared Socio-Economic Pathways (SSP), assume, for instance, that India and all other developing countries will begin absolute emissions reduction at the same time as the developed ones. Such reduction is assumed to begin between 2020-2025 for all, especially in the versions required for reaching the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.  A feature of the report is the underlying theme that appears to suggest that limiting global temperature rise would automatically ensure equity and well-being, without taking note of the needs of development, technology transfer, capacity building and the economic costs of it all. This feature first made its appearance in the ‘special report’ on 1.5 degree of global warming, published by the IPCC last year, and continues here.

The issues of differentiation and equity noted above are important since the IPCC will provide the scientific benchmarks for all considerations related to the review and progress of the ‘Paris Agreement’, including the global stock take. These problematic features have clearly arisen since the IPCC is constrained by the dominance of the scientific and policy literature of the global North, since its mandate is to stay within the limits of an assessment of the current literature on the subject, including climate policy. However, especially in matters relating to equity and climate justice, developing countries clearly also need to be guided by their own respective domestic thinking and consensus, as well as mutual co-operation. The social and economic dimensions of climate policy and action are the product of both expertise and politics. The world needs both science and a democratic consensus, where neither the one nor the other runs away with the agenda.