'The Land Gap' Report Shows Land Is Lacking to Fulfill Climate Pledges

Countries rely too much on land-based carbon capture measures, not enough on reducing emissions.

tree planter at work

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A new study released by Melbourne Climate Futures brings together the findings of more than 20 researchers from around the world. It has revealed that climate pledges around the world are heavily reliant on land for tree planting. If all the national carbon plans are brought to fruition, this would require an area of land larger than the size of the United States, or nearly quadruple the size of India—1.2 billion hectares in all. 

The researchers found that only 551 million hectares accounted for in national pledges would restore primary lands and degraded ecosystems, while 633 hectares would be used for carbon capture strategies like planting trees.

This raises concerns over land use, since land is required for food production and the protection of nature. It also raises concerns that land changes will encroach on the lands of Indigenous people, as well as on lands used by local communities and small-scale farmers for food security.

Land Isn't a 'Silver Bullet Solution'

Kate Dooley, the lead author of "The Land Gap Report" and a researcher at the University of Melbourne, said, "Land has a critical role to play in global efforts to keep the planet cool, but it's not a silver bullet solution. This study reveals that countries' climate pledges are dangerously over reliant on inequitable and unsustainable land-based measures to capture and store carbon. Clearly, countries are loading up on land pledges to avoid the hard work of steeply reducing emissions from fossil fuels, decarbonizing food systems and stopping the destruction of forests and other ecosystems."

Land has amazing capacity to aid in our climate crisis, feed our population, and support diverse life on our planet. But we need to be realistic about the role that land can play in light of competing needs and human rights.

As Dooley pointed out, using a land area for tree planting that is equivalent to half of current global croplands simply won't work. And we also need to think about the fragility of tree planting schemes in the face of worsening climate impacts like fires and droughts.

The most concerning of the climate plans relate to transitioning land currently used for food production and other purposes into monoculture tree plantations. More useful are the pledges from over 20 countries to bring trees into agricultural production (agroforestry), which involves a more integrated approach to sequestering carbon while also increasing biodiversity and meeting human needs.

agroforestry in Uganda
Crops and forest merge in Uganda.

Michele D'Amico supersky77 / Getty Images

Protecting Existing Ecosystems

But before we can think about sustainable land use, we need first to ensure protection for existing ecosystems, and restoration of degraded ones.

A co-author of the report, and a professor at Griffith University, Australia, Brendan Mackey said, "Fortunately, it isn't too late for countries to rethink the way they use land to achieve their climate goals. A three-step approach that prioritizes the protection of forests and other ecosystems, then focuses on restoration and sustainable land use would help achieve climate outcomes in addition to food production, biodiversity and human rights goals."

Looking for new land to plant trees ignores the elephant in the room—the ongoing deforestation and ecosystem degradation around the world. Countries need to tackle this before looking at other measures to meet their pledges.

Communal Input

Safeguarding the rights of Indigenous peoples also needs to be a paramount priority. This report highlights a growing body of evidence that shows that when Indigenous people and local communities have secure land rights, they do better than governments and private landowners in preventing deforestation, conserving biodiversity, and producing food in a sustainable way. So, making sure that all stakeholders are involved in discussions is absolutely vital to achieving our goals.

The report also notes that we need to transform unsustainable food systems through biodiverse and holistic systems such as agroecology

Another thing that the report notes is that carbon accounting needs an overhaul, since much of it ignores scientific and ecological principles and does not account for the variety in carbon stocks. 

Governments are not the only actors with pledges linked to unrealistic use of land. Another recent study by Oxfam found that net-zero claims from Total Energies, Shell, Eni, and BP alone would require 70 million hectares of land by 2050. This also needs to be reigned in.

Countries and organizations need to reduce their expected reliance on land-based carbon removal in favor of stepping up emissions reductions from all sectors and prioritizing ecosystem-based approaches and approaches that take local communities and indigenous residents into account.

You can read "The Land Gap" report here.