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Why land-based mitigation is key to net-zero emissions

World leaders are to present their ideas and strategies on how to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York.

Net-zero requires balance between GHG emissions and removals from the atmosphere. So while it is vital to eliminate subsidies from fossil fuels and deepen investments in renewables and energy efficiency, net-zero also requires increasing the capacity of global carbon sinks.

Francis X. Johnson / Published on 20 September 2019

Eucalyptus trees and tea fields in Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo: Patrick Shepherd (CIFOR) / Flickr.

The recent landmark IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land showed the critical role of land use management for climate stabilisation and resilience. The special report affirms that land can sequester more than a third of our carbon dioxide emissions, and many countries already consider land-based mitigation measures in their NDCs, though relatively few have specific targets or realistic strategies for scaling up.

Like other climate curbing technologies, the overall costs of deploying land-based mitigation will decrease as we gain experience. But land use management is also highly diverse by nature and the applications will vary from area to area. Therefore, testing, learning and wider deployment of land-based mitigation is critical in the coming decade in order for mature solutions to be in place by 2030.

Land-based mitigation must be approached as a complementary portfolio in which various land-based measures are paired with the unique natural and socio-economic conditions of particular regions. Such an approach is analogous to the one employed in finance where a robust portfolio can perform well overall, even when some of its elements underperform or fail.

What land-based mitigation is and why it is important

The IPCC special report outlines four categories of land-based mitigation measures with large global potential: (1) bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS); (2) reforestation and forest restoration; (3) afforestation; and (4) biochar addition to soil. All these measures enhance land-based carbon sinks and can be done on a large-scale and in different climate zones and ecological conditions, although their effectiveness and cost will vary.

At the same time, each of the options has its own specific benefits that can potentially complement the others. Bioenergy reduces dependence on fossil fuels at a modest cost. Biochar improves soil fertility and decreases nutrient leakage. Afforestation, reforestation and forest restoration revitalize nature, cool down the climate and offer diverse sustainable land-use options.

What is more, these actions can favour tropical and sub-tropical regions with high biomass productivity and where greater forest cover can be more effective for climate stabilization than in temperate areas. Such conditions mean that climate and development pathways that include or consider this portfolio of measures can offer a competitive advantage for low-income countries through global carbon markets and international cooperation under the Paris Agreement.

Getting it right at scale: a strategic outline

As the report notes, under many scenarios, worthwhile land-based mitigation will require unprecedented swathes of land. High demand for land may put additional pressure on food prices, biodiversity, ecological integrity and the use of water, nutrients and other inputs in addition to land itself. Choosing land-based mitigation pathways thus requires rolling out and scaling up the best practices, accompanying their application with appropriate governance mechanisms. So, what are some of the key success factors?

First, prioritize optimal locations and most effective and efficient routes for biomass conversion and end-use, for example in the co-production of heat and electricity, as is common in Sweden. Another form of optimization is energy production from waste, like wheat or rice straw and other crop residues, as well as food waste and manure. Efficiency is also about flexibility and product diversification. For instance, it’s possible to make many different products from wheat, including bread, alcohol, animal feed, biofuel and bioplastics.

Second, develop multi-product systems and multifunctional landscapes that allow farmers to capture synergies and improve their income by growing food, trees and energy crops side-by-side. The Global Landscapes Forum community has gathered many successful examples of multifunctional land-use from practitioners.

Third, ensure informed, empowered and fair participation of local communities. People who live and work on the land know the local ecology best and the report notes that utilizing local and indigenous knowledge is essential for sustainable land-use. Balancing additions to carbon sinks with food security is manageable, but climate measures need to be discussed and debated with those who will adopt them and may be directly affected by them. At SEI we are aiming to develop participatory approaches to analysis and visualization, including the use of our NDC-SDG Connections tool.

Fourth, avoiding deforestation is in principle always better than afforestation or reforestation and should be given high priority. Preserving intact forests keeps up efforts to reduce agricultural land expansion and resource-intensive consumption. At the end of the day, steering clear of land impacts is always cheaper than fixing problems after land has been degraded.

Fifth, invest in research and development around biochar and BECCS. The special report indicates the high potential of biochar, but we simply don’t have enough research and data yet on its costs and benefits. Both BECCS and biochar need to be studied further in terms of techno-economics, biophysical impacts, socio-economics and governance.

Investing in wider deployment of land-based mitigation measures should, therefore, be high on the climate action agenda for the coming decade. Broadening the testing ground for land-based mitigation portfolios will facilitate learning across different scales, geographies and socio-economic impacts—thereby laying the groundwork for net-zero emissions pathways and offering a vital insurance mechanism for achieving climate stabilization.

Written by

Francis X. Johnson
Francis X. Johnson

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Design and development by Soapbox.