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New UN climate report is bleak, but there's a solution: trees

© Robin Moore/iLCP

Humanity must overhaul the global food system to stop the climate breakdown, according to a dire report released today.

The report, issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), lays out in stark terms the disastrous environmental impacts of unsustainable agriculture and its potential to exacerbate the effects of climate change.

The world’s food system — from farming to transportation to grocery store packaging — is a top cause of deforestation, contributing approximately 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, the report finds. It also projects that climate change from deforestation will create additional stress on agricultural land systems, adversely impacting crop yields and food security, and causing soil erosion. As countries continue to clear forests and peatlands for agriculture, their commitments under the Paris Agreement to cut climate-warming carbon emissions edge further out of reach.

In response to the report, conservationists called for the widespread restoration of forests, which absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere. 

Restoring forests is the only thing on Earth that can reverse the emissions that drive global warming,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan said, calling the report a “wake-up call.”

A recent study quantified 1.7 billion hectares of treeless land around the world where forests would naturally grow and planting programs could thrive, without encroaching on food production or living area. 

By restoring degraded forestlands in these areas, massive amounts of carbon dioxide could be absorbed from the atmosphere, said Will Turner, Conservation International’s senior vice president of global strategies. Meanwhile, forest restoration is a natural ally for agriculture, he noted: “Reforestation helps stabilize soils, provides clean water, supports healthy food supplies and makes billions of people more resilient to climate change,” he said. 

In the short term, IPCC scientists recommend incentivizing efficient food production by increasing access to agricultural and climate services or developing better payment systems for ecosystem services. Individuals can even help mitigate the effects of climate change by adopting a more sustainable diet and reducing meat consumption

“It's going to take political will, funding and cooperation,” Sanjayan said. “But, as Conservation International has long advocated, transforming to feed the planet while ending deforestation and investing in new forests is fundamental for human survival.”

Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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