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COP25: Modifying the diet will be key to mitigating climate change

The COP25 climate summit that Madrid is hosting these days has put on the table the key issues for the future of the planet. In everything that has to do with the management of natural resources, politics plays a key role. For this reason, scientists must raise their voices, and must be heard by institutions.

Experts are no longer talking about reversing, or even stopping climate change; but of adaptation and mitigation of the coming effects of climate change. On the other hand, COP25 is key to updating countries’ climate commitments (NDCs) in accordance with what was signed in the Paris Agreement , which enters into force in January 2020.

In this context, part of the day on December 4 was dedicated to presenting the special report on climate change and soil that the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Experts (IPCC) presented last August.

According to their conclusions, by the year 2050 it is very likely that the way we eat will have to change substantially , to the extent that land use has to change. Here is a summary of the issues discussed during the summit.

The importance of soil

From the pre-industrial period to the beginning of the millennium (1850–2000), scientists calculate that the concentration of CO2, one of the main greenhouse gases, has increased by 30%.

Although we tend to focus on industry, we often forget soil-related activities, such as agriculture or livestock, as a major source of this problem: Soil-related CO2 emissions are estimated to be between 21 and 37% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (derived from human industries).

As can be gleaned from the IPCC report, agricultural, forestry and other land use activities account for around 13% of CO2, 44% of methane (CH4) and 81% of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from human activities worldwide during the period 2007–2016, which represents 23% of total net anthropogenic emissions.

On the other hand, changing conditions on earth can reduce or accentuate global warming and affect the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme weather events.

Hans-Otto Pörtner , president of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change, during the presentation at COP25, in Madrid.


A vicious circle

The IPCC findings focus on how climate change affects soil conditions and how these conditions, in turn, exacerbate the climate problem.

The global increase in temperature can lead to desertification. But this desertification of the land, as it does not have a vegetation cover that releases oxygen into the environment thanks to photosynthesis, in turn causes an increase in the concentration of CO2. And this desertification also increases the risk of forest fires, which are another important source of atmospheric CO2.

How are soil and climate change interrelated?

– The probability, intensity and duration of many extreme weather events can be significantly modified by changes in conditions on the earth, including heat-related events such as heat waves and heavy rainfall events.

– Changes in land conditions can affect temperature and rainfall in regions hundreds of kilometers away.

– Drier soil conditions as a result of climate change can increase the severity of heat waves.

– Desertification amplifies global warming through the release of CO2 linked to the decrease in vegetation cover.

Desertification is key

One of the major concerns of the IPCC regarding the soil is desertification, which amplifies global warming through the release of CO2 , due to the reduction of vegetation cover (deforestation): “Avoiding, reducing and reversing desertification would improve the fertility of the soil, would increase carbon storage in soils and biomass, while benefiting agricultural productivity and food security ”.

In turn, the scientists recommend: “ Preventing desertification is preferable to trying to restore degraded lands ; the latter could lead to residual risks and maladaptive results ”.

Adaptation and mitigation

Both concepts have been widely repeated throughout the intervention. Adaptation , in reference to knowing how to anticipate weather conditions; and mitigation , in the sense of limiting as far as possible the factors that cause changes in the climate (at least those that depend on human beings). In what has to do with the soil, adaptation and mitigation require rethinking the way we humans use the soil: mitigation of agricultural and livestock activities is necessary by a deadline: 2050. And the solutions have to begin to be implemented NOW.

The solutions are to change how we eat

As the panel of experts concludes, the future use of the land depends, in part, on the responses that the states give from now on to these problems.

If we want to limit warming to 1.5ºC , a change in land use is necessary through different combinations of reforestation, afforestation, reduced deforestation and bioenergy . This will, on the other hand, reduce the consequences for desertification, land degradation and food security.

Broadly speaking, there are three policies that operate in the food system: reducing food waste, influencing dietary choices (so that citizens opt for food from sustainable agriculture), and enabling more sustainable land use management. The combination of these three policies, as detailed by the IPCC, can contribute to adaptation to climate change, reducing land degradation, desertification and poverty, as well as improving public health.


Más información:

IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)].

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