Up to 30% of total food produced worldwide is lost or wasted
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Up to 30% of total food produced worldwide is lost or wasted

Land is a critical resource says a new report from United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but is under growing pressure from humans and climate change.

In a summary for policy-makers, IPCC states that land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being including the supply of food, freshwater, and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity. Human use directly affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface. Land also plays an important role in the climate system.

Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes (heat waves, droughts, and precipitation), has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.

The IPCC report stresses that rapid and ambitious climate policies are needed to keep climate change impacts on the land system to a manageable level but does not deal specifically with the impacts in Europe.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said on Tuesday (13 August) that the Commission welcomes the report but declined to elaborate on how it will affect EU’s policy-making.

“We are going to look into its findings very closely. The report is a timely and scientific assessment and reinforces EU’s strategy for achieving climate neutrality and decarbonize the economy by 2050,” said the spokesperson.

Global warming

The report, Climate change and Land, is a special IPCC report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. It was approved last week by IPCC and will be a key scientific input into forthcoming climate and environment negotiations later this year.

“Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors are from developing countries,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC.

According to the report, better land management and food production can contribute to tackling climate change but are not the only solutions. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2 degrees C if not 1.5 degrees as was decided in 2015 in the Paris Agreement.

At around 1.5 degrees of global warming the risks from dryland water scarcity, wildfire damage, permafrost degradation, and food supply instabilities are projected to be high. At around 2 degrees of global warming, the risk from permafrost degradation and food supply instabilities are projected to be very high.

Additionally, at around 3 degrees of global warming risk from vegetation loss, wildfire damage, and dryland water scarcity are also projected to be very high. Risks from droughts, water stress, heat-related events such as heatwaves and habitat degradation simultaneously increase between 1.5 and 3 degrees of warming.

IPCC stresses that land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively.

Land degradation

Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for around 13% of carbon dioxide, 44% of methane, and 82% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activities globally during 2007-2016, representing 23% of total net human greenhouse emission. The global demand for meat has resulted in an increase in emissions of methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from manured pastures.

At the same time, natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry. The persistence of the carbon sink, however, is uncertain due to deforestation and climate change.

When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This exacerbates climate change, while climate change, in turn, exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.

Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. The highest numbers of people affected are in South and East Asia, the regions around Sahara including North Africa, and the Middle East including the Arabian Peninsula. Food shortages in these areas will increase the pressure for migration.

Such areas and drylands are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including drought, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure. Climate change is affecting food security in drylands, particularly those in Africa, and high mountain regions of Asia and South America.

The report sets out options to tackle land degradation and prevent or adapt to further climate change. It also examines potential impacts from different levels of global warming.

The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability).

“We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean,” an IPCC expert said.

Food security

Currently, 25-30% of total food produced is lost or wasted. Changes in consumption patterns have contributed to about 2 billion adults now being overweight or obese. An estimated 821 million people are still undernourished.

Causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries, as well as between regions. Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security.

“Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others,” another IPCC expert said. Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change.

Reducing inequalities, improving incomes and ensuring equitable access to food so that some regions, where land cannot provide adequate food, are not disadvantaged are other ways to adapt to the negative effects of climate change.

In 2017, the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen published a report on Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe.

Asked by The Brussels Times about the link between this report and the IPCC report, Hans-Martin Füssel, Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation Expert at EEA, replied that the two reports largely concur on the conclusions.

“The EEA report, which looked at how climate change is impacting terrestrial ecosystems, soil, forests, and agriculture, showed that climate change poses increasingly severe risks for ecosystems, human health, and the economy in Europe.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times