Food & Agriculture Specialist
At a time when half the country is recovering from flood fury, especially in Kerala, where massive landslides following incessant rains have taken a huge human toll; and much of the remaining half of the country is reeling under a continuing drought, the latest special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled ‘Climate change and land’ couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The 1,300-page report presents scary facts that perhaps needed an official endorsement.
Speaking to The Guardian, Dave Reay, professor at the University of Edinburgh and an expert reviewer for the IPCC report, summed it up: ‘This is a perfect storm. Limited land, an expanding human population, and all wrapped in a suffocating blanket of climate emergency. Earth has never felt smaller, its natural ecosystems never under such direct threat.’ Although integral to the discussions on climate change, the direct relationship land has with climate change had never been so loudly emphasised. It, however, restrains from making any policy recommendations and that is its biggest drawback. To illustrate, if fossil fuel subsidies have grown to $400 billion in 2018, unless a phase-out programme accompanied by adequate public sector investments in sustainable food production systems or land management etc., is provided, it is futile to expect any meaningful contribution towards protecting the climate from going haywire.
The report says that since the pre-industrial period (1850-1900), the global mean land surface temperature (till 2006-15) has almost doubled when compared with the global mean surface temperature, which is the average for land and ocean temperatures. While the land surface temperature has increased by 1.53°C, the rise in the mean land and ocean temperatures hovered around 0.87°C. In other words, the report shows that to cap the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C, the world will have to ensure that any further rise in the land surface temperature is kept under control. Further, global warming has already brought about a shift in climatic patterns in many parts of the world, including expansion of the arid climate zones and contraction of polar zones, and has also unleashed extreme weather fluctuations, inducing long dry spells, prolonged heat period, floods, enhanced frequency of cyclones, permafrost thaw, loss of biodiversity and posing a threat to food security.
Recent studies have shown that ever since man started recording temperatures, July has been the hottest month. The Himalayas have been losing over a foot of ice every year since 2000, and Swiss glaciers have lost over 0.8 billion tonnes of snow and ice in June. While the IPCC report says that cultivated soils are being lost at a rate 100 times faster than they are being formed, a major study by ETC Group had earlier shown that nearly 75 billion tonnes of soil is lost every year to erosion, with damage costing Rs 400 billion a year. In another report, published in Scientific American, a UN official was quoted as saying that if the current rate of degradation continues, the world’s top soil would be gone in 60 years.
Global food production systems, including agriculture, forestry, livestock and other land uses, account for 13% carbon dioxide, 44% methane and 82% nitrous oxide emissions, accounting for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. However, this appears to be a scaled-down estimate from another UN report, ‘Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’, released last year, which pegged the gas emissions from the same activities between 49 and 57%. The challenge to reduce emissions without any negative fallout on food security remains paramount. It has socio-economic as well as political implications.
The IPCC report does suggest sustainable farm practices, increasing crop productivity, moving away from bio-energy programmes, and shifting dietary preferences from meat-based to plant-based foods among measures that could make a significant dent on gas emissions. In addition, almost a quarter of the food produced is either lost or wasted. Several studies earlier have pointed to the enormous damage resulting from food wastage and, in turn, the environmental footprint it leaves behind. If food wastage was a country, it would have ranked third in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the food that goes waste in the US, for instance, is good enough to meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa.
Between 1961 and 2013, an additional 1% of the world’s drylands had turned drought-hit. This, however, cannot be entirely blamed on climate change. In India, for instance, the drylands are getting into the drought zone because of a large number of water-guzzling hybrid crops that are cultivated with impunity. Common sense tells us that drylands need crops which require less water. In Maharashtra, 76% of the available irrigation is consumed by sugarcane alone, which occupies only 4% of the cultivable area. The remaining 96% crops face terrible water stress, which has little to do with global warming.
The report mentions desertification, deforestation, industries, and urbanisation as factors. It also lists draining wetlands to be responsible for releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Kerala is particularly a victim of flawed policies that have drained wetlands, and by encouraging rampant quarrying in fragile areas of the Western Ghats, turned it vulnerable to landslides. In the quest for higher economic growth, natural resources are being ruthlessly devastated.
The report is very useful for academic purposes. Environmentalists will surely lap it up. But in the absence of any mandatory guidelines and policy directions that G20 countries must be asked to adhere to, more so at a time when the world is faced with a climate emergency, the IPCC simply let the opportunity go.