The Land Battle for Sustainable Development

BONN – As high-level political representatives gather in Addis Ababa this week for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, there are reasons to be optimistic about the fight against climate change and the pursuit of sustainable development. Investments in renewable energies have topped $270 billion a year, and clean sources of power, like the sun and the wind, represent a rising share of the world’s energy production. Meanwhile, sectors such as transportation, urban planning, and construction are undergoing root-and-branch change in terms of energy efficiency and conservation.

The significance of these advances cannot be overstated; but they must be accompanied by a fundamental change in our relationship with the natural world. After all, nature has perfected methods that capture and store carbon safely and cost-effectively, while yielding a wide range of additional benefits to humanity.

That is why, as officials gather in Ethiopia to identify the best ways to secure the resources needed to maintain the health of our planet and boost the wellbeing of its inhabitants, they would be wise to look down. The land beneath our feet holds huge, largely untapped potential for rapid gains in both the fight against climate change and efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which the international community is expected to adopt later this year.

For starters, deforestation and agricultural emissions from soil, fertilizers, and livestock account for around one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. Better management of the land could not only reduce emissions, but also trap the equivalent of 7-10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. This amounts to roughly half the emissions we need to cut in the coming decades to meet the international goal of preventing a global rise in average surface temperature of more than 2º Celsius.

But the actions needed to avoid, reduce, capture, and store emissions would bring much wider benefits as well. In addition to reining in emissions, maximizing the land’s potential and protecting its vegetation is an efficient way to provide assistance to a large number of increasingly vulnerable people. Better management of existing land would also prevent the removal, on average, of three million hectares of vegetation every year, while meeting the growing demand for food in the coming decades.

Indeed, by boosting the fertility of the land, many measures promise to safeguard harvests for the world’s small-scale farmers. This could help preserve the livelihoods of more than two billion people – many of whom live in abject poverty, at risk of conflict and displacement if the natural resources on which they depend continue to be overused and depleted. Likewise, some of the measures needed to capture and store emissions would entail the restoration of some two billion hectares of forests, wetlands, and grasslands that have been degraded and lost.

The positive effects of these conservation and reclamation efforts are vast. Natural vegetation is vital for adaption to the effects of climate change, the creation of resilient communities, and the provision of ecosystem services. Mangrove swamps, for example, can mitigate the impact of hurricanes. Forest cover can contain erosion and help provide clean, secure sources of water. Stemming major losses to our natural resources would also provide a boost to biodiversity, which is indispensable not only to sustainable agriculture, but also one of the world’s largest and most profitable economic sectors: tourism.

Until now, the importance of improved land management to winning the fight against climate change has largely been overlooked. If we continue to neglect it, we will deprive ourselves of crucial tools in the creation of a low-carbon future and miss important opportunities to build resilience and adapt to the effects of rising temperatures.

Today, we have more knowledge than ever about how best to manage land and vegetation to reduce emissions and maximize carbon uptake in reliable and verifiable ways. In Addis Ababa this week, and at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, officials should not overlook the critical role that land can play in the effort to build a prosperous and sustainable future.