The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on land use was published today [8 August 2019]. It paints a stark but familiar picture of the impact human activities are having on the environment. The report, which draws on contributions from over 100 leading scientists from 52 countries across the world, highlights the need for action now, says Dr Ciara Murphy.
The rate and extent of our exploitation is causing unimaginable loss to our biodiversity and ecosystems which in turn has negative consequences on people’s livelihoods. The evidence that land use and management need to be addressed in our fight against climate chaos and biodiversity loss is mounting. Agriculture, forestry and other utilisation of land are a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and acco unted for over 20% of anthropogenic emissions between 2007 and 2016. Climate change coupled with an already degraded landscape can multiply the detrimental impacts on vulnerable communities leading to climate injustice.
Proper land use management has a number of co-benefits associated with it including restored and improved ecosystem services, increased crop yields, climate mitigation and adaption, food and livelihood security and has immense benefits for biodiversity. The authors of the report estimate that ‘every euro invested in sustainable land management yields from 3-6 euros of returns in terms of ecosystem services, benefitting the entire global community’.
Conversely, delaying land-based mitigation action can limit the range of options open to us and their effectiveness. In Ireland, one obvious example of this is the risk we take in delaying to protect our peatlands. The longer we wait to conserve and restore our bogs, the less effective they will be in mitigating our carbon emissions, as they will simply not be there anymore. Implementing policies to protect native woodlands after they have been harvested is the equivalent of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Not just a ‘cost benefit analysis’
The IPCC report opens with the recognition that ‘land and its biodiversity have intrinsic value and support non-material ecosystems services, such as cognitive and spiritual enrichment and aesthetic values’. The report continues in this vein, a deviation from the usual cost-driven policy recommendations that we have grown accustomed to. This philosophy echoes that of Laudato Si, the Encyclical Letter written by Pope Francis in 2015 which states that ‘Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live’ (§139). Awareness that ecosystems have intrinsic value, in addition to us being completely dependent on ecosystem functioning could hopefully lead to more sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services regardless of the financial implications (§140). While cost is always going to be an important factor in any policy plan, recognition that it should not always be the leading factor is an important reminder to the Irish policy makers that assumes the ‘least cost’ solution is the best. We need a more ‘integral and integrated vision’ for the future of our environment bringing together different fields of knowledge including economics (§141).
Holistic and collaborative action
The IPCC report is in stark contrast to the Irish Government’s recently published Climate Action Plan which relied on technological solutions and ‘nudges’, and shied away from ambitious and sustainable changes in land use policy. While agriculture in Ireland contributes 33% of total emissions, proposals to tackling this problem lack ambition and, presumably, political motivation. The main solution offered in the Climate Action Plan is diversification through afforestation however the IPCC report has stressed that there are limitations associated with deployment of land-based mitigation measures.
In terms of land use management there are no silver bullets and actions must be implemented in a way that is appropriate for the local biosphere and social conditions. In other words, we cannot just plant forests to evade sustainable land management. True diversification of the food system greatly reduces risk, both to the farmer and communities at large. The extreme weather of the summer of 2018 which resulted in the fodder crisis highlights the risk we are taking by relying on few types of farming practice. In bad years there are is no insurance.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis again gives insight into the intricacies of these issues. He recognised that ‘attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community’. For solutions to work they need to benefit not only the natural environment but the people that reside in that environment, ‘so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic’ (§144).
The IPCC report emphasises that ‘coherent climate and land policy portfolios have the potential to save resources and also amplify social resilience, ecological restoration and local stakeholder engagement and collaboration’. We at Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice join with other climate campaigners in calling for the Government to respond to this report and work to incorporate its recommendations for early and ambitions land use management actions into the next Climate Action Plan.
This would ensure that the not only are we addressing climate chaos with all the tools at our disposal, but we are also safeguarding our livelihoods and the intrinsic value of the natural environment.
Author: Dr Ciara Murphy