Image: WWF

We asked Dr. Melissa Ho, Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, to give us a bit of commentary about today’s newly-released IPCC report. Keep reading to learn more about how we can take action to better manage land and the consequences that might arise if we ignore the warnings of scientists.

ODP: We’re starting to hear more about how better land-use practices can help tackle climate change, whereas before renewable energy was seen as the true silver bullet. What do you think has lead to the wakeup call that how we grow our food and manage our land has a major impact on climate change?  

MH: To reach our goal of radical reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions, we need to embrace ALL solutions – including renewable and green energy sources – because fossil fuels are definitely a major contributor to the problem. We should not be surprised with so many sources of GHGs, there’s no single silver bullet solution.  The size and scope of the problem does not give us the luxury of an “either/or” scenario; we must make progress across multiple sectors. 

At the same time, we now have indisputable evidence that land use, particularly driven by agriculture, is responsible for about a quarter of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.  We’re not going to make significant progress against our climate goals without addressing food production too.  Scientists and environmental groups have been talking about this for years.  What has changed over the past few years is the acknowledgment made by major companies, especially retailers and food and beverage companies, who have started making their own commitments to reduce their climate impact.  When companies started looking into their own corporate footprint, they realized that the bulk of their climate impact is actually coming from their supply chains, and in order to achieve their targets they had to work to support better agricultural and land-use practices.  

ODP: In the United States, what are some immediate steps that we can take to encourage sustainable land-use practices? What’s are some important first steps that we can take?

MH: Sustainable land use is predicated on having objectives for sustainable development, which has previously been defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

  • A fundamental first step is putting a real value on nature and ensuring that sufficient land in a “natural condition” remains intact for future generations. 
  • We also need to prioritize how to minimize the negative impact on ecosystem function from any land use decision.  We need to instill frameworks and criteria for sustainable land-use planning into federal, state and local policy that take into account natural systems and value ecosystem function. 
  • And of course, we need to develop good science to support decision-making.   In fact, there’s so much that can and should be done in the US.  Right here in our back yard, we have an incredibly valuable landscape that needs protection.

The prairies of the Great Plains are one of the last remaining temperate grassland ecosystems on the planet, and similar to commitments made to protect the Amazon and other vulnerable biomes, we need strong and actionable commitments from companies, communities, policymakers, and producers to protect our prairies as well.  Market-based incentives are emerging and exciting opportunities to explore and exploit as a potential mechanism to drive sustainable land-use practices going forward.  Protecting habitats such as the Great Plains conserve biodiversity, defend against climate change, and provide a myriad of other benefits – such as clean water for drinking and farming, fertile soil for rural farmers, and shelter for diverse wildlife that enrich the natural history of our country.

ODP: What are the potential impacts of governments not acting on the warnings scientists are giving in this new IPCC report to manage land more sustainably and ensure that it releases far fewer greenhouse gases than at present?

MH: Unfortunately, failure to contain the dire trends of land conversion and degradation will result in a negative feedback loop.  Not only will we ensure that climate change will lead to severe global warming, we would also continue to destroy and degrade precious landscapes, seascapes, and freshwater ecosystems.   Climate change and the loss of nature and critical ecosystem services will ultimately result in compromised soil health, shortages in freshwater resources, and reduced crop yields over the longer term.  This, in turn, will lead to more food shortages, more instability, insecurity, and inequity, and ultimately more strife, with the poor and vulnerable especially in developing countries being at most risk.  Given what is at stake, failure cannot be an option.

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