The entire GDP of Thailand. That is what governments globally spend every year on harmful agriculture subsidies. That is 470 billion dollars per year that incentivize the overuse of fertilizers, water, or expansion of agricultural land into other ecosystems, with associated costs on the environment and the health of farmers and consumers. This recent finding from a joint UN-FAO report reminds us that food, climate change, and biodiversity preservation are closely interrelated.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, one third of greenhouse gases emissions come from food production (mainly nitrous oxide from fertilizers and methane from the infamous cow burps). In addition, one quarter of carbon emissions in the region come from deforestation. Deforestation is also why 94% of biodiversity in the region was lost since 1970, according to WWF’s living planet index. And deforestation itself mainly comes from beef production, as more than three quarter of arable land is used for grazing or growing feed. On the other hand, protecting ecosystems and biodiversity is key to capture carbon and avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change – trees that reduce urban heat and mangroves that shield against coastal floods are classic examples.
Climate change, food production, and biodiversity preservation must be addressed together. Policies that look at some of these objectives in silos risk advancing one goal at the expense of others and miss opportunities to leverage synergies between then. For instance, using biofuels to displace fossil fuels may look like a great idea, until you take into account that dedicating land to increasing biofuel crops often means either displacing other crops, with negative consequences on food prices and food security, or clearing forests, with disastrous consequences on carbon emissions from deforestation and destruction of habitats.
It is thus essential to build bridges among practices. What can the climate-change community do? In a recent paper, we offer guidance for the development of so-called long-term climate strategies that take other crucial land-use-related goals into account.
Designing long-term strategies for agriculture, forestry, and land use in consultation with stakeholders
First a few words on these long-term strategies. Under the Paris Agreement, countries have committed to achieve net-zero emissions by around 2050. We know this is doable and, if done right, brings jobs, economic benefits, and can help advance other sustainable development goals. But it requires wise and strategic choices from governments, as there are challenges to overcome, such as unhelpful regulations, misguided planning, and political economy barriers to decarbonization. Long-term strategies can help governments envision what changes they need to get to net-zero emissions, map the challenges and develop policy roadmaps to remove them. Around 30 countries have already developed suchstrategies, and many others are currently working on them.
Our paper offers a framework for analysts to help decision-makers design long-term strategies for the agriculture, forestry, and land use sectors that bring multiple sustainable development objectives. It is grounded in a simple truth: while the government’s climate agency may be in charge of reporting climate strategies to the UN, the strategies will be largely implemented by the private sector following regulations from line ministries. Climate policy must therefore make sense to them, in terms of what it tries to achieve, and how it can get there.
To agree on the objectives, it is essential to engage with national policymakers, civil society, and private sector before designing any emission reduction pathway, and ask what goals other than emission reductions should climate strategies pursue. This goes a long way to garner buy-in and ensure that key national political concerns and objectives are considered. Typical answers in developing countries include improving nutrition outcomes, reducing deforestation, increasing yields, and develop exports of agriculture products.
To agree on the means, the framework is designed to represent concrete sectoral transformations that actors from the food and land-use system are used to. Examples include conserving, restoring, and otherwise increasing forests, peatlands, or other high-carbon ecosystems; transforming agriculture production practices, such as livestock feed or crop fertilization; or shifting diets away from the most emission- and land-use-intensive products, for instance replacing beef and animal products more generally with plant-based protein sources. With clear sectoral transformations in mind, stakeholders can more easily investigate barriers to implementation and design reforms to enable the transition.
Stacking the benefits of a decarbonized land use system
The framework is designed to help track how sectoral transformations affect a wide range of development indicators. It is the job of the analyst to put numbers on different options and explore how different combinations of transformations can impact emissions and other development outcomes, given constraints such as total land available, food intake needs, and trade assumptions.
A team of researchers from Peru applied this framework and assessed the impact of protecting the Amazon forest, promoting silvopastoral and agroforestry practices, and replacing some beef consumption with pork and some rice consumption with tubers, among other transformations. They found that these could help Peru transform the land-use sector, today responsible for almost three quarters of GHG emissions in the country, into a net-carbon sink by 2050, balancing emissions from all other sectors and delivering a net-zero economy. Moreover, these transformations would generate almost 30 billion dollars in net benefits, while protecting biodiverse areas and ensuring adequate food intake for the population.
The need to address climate change, biodiversity and food security is clear. Long-term climate strategies designed in partnership with key actors can help translate the political mandate into concrete roadmaps for change. We hope our framework can help analysts do their part.