By Justin Catanoso

  • In the wake of the dire, just released UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a climate advocacy group known as CLARA (Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance) has published a separate report proposing that the world’s nations put far more effort into land sector measures to store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • They suggest that these nature-oriented, land-based approaches could be far more effective, and more rapidly implemented, than relying on costly or largely untested high tech solutions such as bioenergy, carbon capture-and-storage, and geoengineering.
  • Among the approaches CLARA proposes are the establishment of far stronger land rights for indigenous peoples (who are among the world’s best forest stewards), as well as a serious reduction in deforestation and the restoration of forest ecosystems worldwide.
  • The CLARA report also calls for the transformation of agriculture (less tilling, less fertilizers, more support for small farms), and a global revolution in dietary habits, including a reduction in meat consumption and less food waste.
The conservation and restoration of forests is an essential step to solving humanity’s climate change problem, says a new report. Photo on VisualHunt.

A group of climate advocates released detailed findings today, saying that significant climate change mitigation can be achieved via a heavy emphasis on the land sector, and without reliance on costly or largely untested technologies such as bioenergy, carbon capture-and-storage and geoengineering.

The report, called Missing Pathways to 1.5 degrees C: The role of the land sector in ambitious climate action, was released by the Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA). The 53-page document recommends a combination of land-based strategies: secure land rights for indigenous peoples, restore forest ecosystems, and transform agriculture and dietary habits.

Such an approach, CLARA says, would naturally sequester carbon and prevent greenhouse gas emissions as a significant contribution to achieving the Paris Agreement goal of holding global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase by 2100. Earth has already warmed about 1 degree Celsius since 1900.

The CLARA study comes in response to the United Nations special report and Summary for Policymakers, released one week ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and authored by 91 scientists from 40 countries. The IPCC report’s findings stunned the worldthough also fell on deaf ears – by asserting that some of the most calamitous impacts of rapidly rising carbon emissions and climate change could come as soon as 2040 – generations earlier than previously anticipated.

The IPCC called on global leaders to transform the global economy and rapidly reduce emissions at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent” in order to diminish extreme weather events including escalating drought, wildfires, sea-level rise and coral-reef die off, all of which imperil food systems and billions of people.

Woods Hole Research Center ecologist Wayne Walker instructs indigenous technicians affiliated with COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin) to monitor forest carbon in Ecuador. Because indigenous people are the world’s best land stewards, CLARA recommends that nations give indigenous communities the legal tools to play a leading role in forest protection. Photo by Dylan Murray.

“Our study is not meant to either contradict or complement the IPCC report,” said Doreen Stabinsky, a co-author of Missing Pathways, in a Mongabay interview. “The IPCC looks very generally at pathways to 1.5 degrees C. We dive into the literature to find what would be useful, specific contributions from the land sector to stay within a 1.5-degree pathway.”

CLARA does not address the energy or transportation sectors, she said, huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. It is assumed that dramatic transformation must come there as well to reduce the rate of warming sooner rather than later.

Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at Maine’s University of the Atlantic, reviewed early drafts of the UN’s Summary to Policymakers, which included a heightened role for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as potential significant contributors to climate mitigation – technologies that are controversial, costly and mostly untested. The final IPCC report, however, downplayed BECCS, which Stabinsky said was the result of intense internal debate among IPCC scientists.

The report calls on governments to enact policies to dramatically reduce deforestation, protect peatlands and grasslands, and improve forest management. Photo on

The key role of forests

Some global progress is being made in carbon reductions. Despite a current White House hostile to climate-change policy, the United States has peaked its carbon emissions, at least for now, as has neighboring Canada and much of the EU and Russia. Twenty-seven major cities have peaked their emissions too, while investments in solar and wind energy continue to grow as generation prices drop and come into parity with fossil fuels.

But none of this incremental progress has slowed the rate of climate change. Overall global emissions hit a record high in 2017, while average temperatures have continued to climb, with every month for the past thirty years at or above 20thcentury averages – that’s since February 1985. The dire, new IPCC report underlines the urgent need for immediate action.

However, CLARA doesn’t call for the silver bullet of untried technologies, but urges that we allow, and assist, nature in doing a fair share of the heavy lifting – keeping carbon in the ground. And the best method of carbon capture is via live trees in an intact forest ecosystem, says the report.

“The land sector and forests absolutely have an important role to play; this is something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” Steve Schwartzman, a senior director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Mongabay. “Natural climate solutions deserve more attention and a clearer focus.”

The CLARA report offers alternatives to high tech solutions. It is “a pragmatic blueprint for tackling the climate crisis while respecting human rights and protecting biodiversity,” wrote Kelsey Perlman in a statement from FERN, the European Union-based forest-protection group. “The EU must abandon its faith in unproven technological solutions and put restoring and protecting forests at the center of its climate strategy.”

The Drax power station in the United Kingdom, which once burned coal, but today burns woody biomass. The UK has nearly eliminated coal use for energy production, cutting its official IPCC emissions, but bioenergy still produces large carbon releases, which aren’t counted. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

The problem with BECCS

Some CO2 reduction models, possibly encouraged by governments or energy corporations, strongly emphasize a pathway to the 1.5-degree Celsius goal that would include a major shift to burning biomass instead of coal for energy generation. Other high tech approaches would require enormous filters to pull carbon out of the air, or geoengineering tchniques employing, for example, atmospheric injections of tiny particles to deflect the sun’s radiation before it has a chance to warm the earth.

CLARA advocates say these theoretical approaches are misleading at best, offering false hope, and reckless at worst. BECCS technological fixes, they note, might give nations an excuse not to actively cut emissions, and may reduce public pressure on global leaders to take vitally needed steps, such as investing heavily in wind and solar energy and reducing deforestation.

They point out that viable working examples of carbon capture-and-storage and geoengineering do not currently exist. While burning biomass, such as wood pellets made from farmed trees and woody residue – a practice widely used in the UK and the EU – actually releases more carbon emissions per kilowatt hour than burning coal. Recent research also indicates that burning biomass is erroneously accounted for as carbon neutral because it comes from renewable resources.

“The CLARA report shows that protecting forests and allowing them to grow can render unnecessary such untested and potentially dangerous technologies as BECCS that artificially remove CO2 from the air,” Christoph Thies of Greenspeace Germany said in a statement.

Kelly Levin, a senior associate with World Resources Institute’s climate program, took a slightly modified position. She agree that environmentalists are right to be wary of BECCS in the near term, but added, that it is important to remain open to climate-mitigation technology and innovation that may become viable and reasonably safe in coming decades.

“Not any one of these approaches is going to generate the scale of carbon reductions that are necessary to reach the Paris Agreement goals,” she said. “Climate researchers are making a clear call for a portfolio of approaches. The reason we need to get started now on innovative solutions is so that we have those options available in the future.”

Indigenous peoples from around the world march at a 2018 rally in San Francisco prior to the opening of the Global Climate Action Summit. Photo Credit: Joel Redman, If Not Us Then Who.

CLARA’s clarion call

“The battle against climate change is inseparable from efforts to ensure food security, protect human rights, plus protect and restore natural ecosystems,” says Missing Pathways. The report spells out three holistic strategies for land-based climate mitigation that its models predict could avoid new emissions, while also pulling many tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050:

  • Strengthening indigenous and community land rights: Much of the world’s remaining tropical forest – powerful sponges for carbon dioxide – are occupied by indigenous peoples and traditional communities. Recent studies indicate that such lands see deforestation rates dramatically lower than other government-controlled lands. But because only 10 percent of these occupied lands are titled to the people who live there, CLARA calls for land ownership to be turned over to indigenous and traditional people – those best positioned to protect the forests.

“‘Avoided deforestation’ is recognized in the scientific literature as one of the lowest-cost approaches to mitigation,” CLARA states, “but solutions based on recognizing community land rights while extending indigenous management of degraded forests remain undervalued.”

  • Restoring forests and other ecosystems: Here CLARA quantifies “the carbon mitigation potential of returning half the world’s forests to an undisturbed state, which, along with expanding natural forests, builds ecosystem resilience.” The report calls on governments to enact policies to dramatically reduce deforestation and improve forest management, protect peatlands (enormous carbon sinks), and recognize that grasslands are also powerful for carbon sequestration and shouldn’t be converted to cropland.

“Improved management of forests for timber, non-timber forest products, and ecological values is crucial for enhanced carbon sequestration,” the report states. “In tropical forests, responsible use means no commercial extraction of timber, given that over 50 percent of biomass in these forests resides in valuable hardwood trees that take centuries to regrow.”

  • Transforming agriculture: For all of Missing Pathways aspirations and ambitions, this might be the most ambitious. CLARA not only calls for dramatic changes in how the world’s food is grown (less tilling, less fertilizers, more support for small farms), but a wholesale change in First World diets. That means reducing meat and dairy consumption, cutting down on food waste and reducing fossil-fuel heated greenhouses to extend growing seasons – changes that transnational food companies and consumers would likely perceive as drastic.

“A shift from industrial food production to sustainable and agroecological farming would help slow down climate change and empower the world’s smallholder farmers, especially women,” Teresa Anderson of ActionAid International said in a press release. “Even bigger emissions savings can come from producing and consuming less meat.”

Beef cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. The CLARA report calls for a wholesale change in First World diets. Big emission savings could come from producing and consuming less meat. Image by Henrique Manreza / The Nature Conservancy.

Schwartzman at EDF applauded the Missing Pathways report and recommendations. He also acknowledged the political challenges of implementing the wide-ranging changes called for by both the IPCC and CLARA.

Brazil, for example, possesses the world’s largest rainforests in the Amazon, with major communities of indigenous peoples living there. Schwartzman noted that the South American country successfully reduced deforestation rates between 2004 and 2014 through governmental policies. But a lack of tax incentives, payments for ecosystem services and carbon credits – along with a government that is hyper-focused on large-scale industrial agribusiness to fuel economic growth – has resulted in a deforestation spike in Brazil since 2014.

“We need national and subnational carbon markets for all this to work,” said Schwartzman, referring to financial incentives that would encourage polluting entities to reduce emissions. “Donors have stepped up to contribute billions of dollars to reduce deforestation. That’s good and should continue. But relying on philanthropy alone is never going to mobilize the resources at the scale needed over time to reduce emissions.”

Stabinsky, the Missing Pathways co-author, agreed that financing significant climate mitigation strategies remains an issue. The IPCC is calling for a steep tax on carbon emissions. But Stabinsky said countries capable of reducing emissions urgently need strategies now, grounded in scientific research and demonstrated outcomes.

“With this report, these are strategies that countries can adopt [immediately], and we wanted to put them in the spotlight,” she said. “The IPCC isn’t making such recommendations.”

Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a regular Mongabay contributor. He will be covering the important UN climate summit in Poland in December for Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.

Banner image: The conservation of forests has other benefits besides storing carbon. It also preserves biodiversity. Photo on VisualHunt