Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows global warming threatens global food security

The latest report by the UN climate panel concludes that unless we cut emissions in all sectors now, the result will be irreparable loss of land-based ecosystem functions and services, and this could put global food security at risk.  

According to the report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 8 August, “data available since 1961 show that global population growth and changes in per capita consumption of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy have caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use, with agriculture currently accounting for ca. 70% of global fresh-water use”.

“Our intensive use of land for food production, feed, fibre, timber and energy puts – in combination with ongoing climate change – huge pressure on the earth’s land areas, areas that should continue meeting many different needs in the years ahead,” said Marianne Tronstad Lund, a senior researcher at CICERO Center for International Climate Research.

If emissions remain on current levels, this could have an enormous impact on some ecosystems, according to report. This could, in the long run, lead to large additional greenhouse gas emissions from ecosystems, which in turn will accelerate global warming.

“Land use and climate are closely connected. Agriculture and food production are important sources of greenhouse gas emissions, while forests, on the other hand, absorb much of our CO2 emissions. At the same time, ecosystems and food security are threatened by the risk of more extreme weather caused by a warming world,” said Lund.

Food and agriculture choices needed

Today, humans are impacting more than 70 percent of the ice-free land area, and food production is an important part of this land use. At the same time, about two billion people worldwide are overweight and 821 million are malnourished. In addition, around one third of all the food produced globally is either thrown away or destroyed, the report shows.

“The report estimates that emissions from the global food system account for between 21-37 percent of man-made climate gas emissions. This means that emissions from food production, processing, transport and storage are on the same level as those from the electricity, transport and industry sectors,” said CICERO senior researcher Bob van Oort.

“This shows that now is the time to take some choices regarding our own diet. We are today exploiting our land and fresh-water resources at an enormous speed and scale. In addition to leading to biodiversity losses, degradation and desertification, this current unsustainable land use also represents a major challenge for our food security,” van Oort added.

The report also shows that the risks related to food security are related to challenges such as lower incomes, increased demand for food, rising food prices as a result of higher competition for land, more limited trade and other challenges linked to adaptation.

“We need to find a good balance between more efficient food production and choices we can make regarding what we eat in order to solve these challenges,” said van Oort.

Global consequences of climate change on land

According to the report, extreme weather events such as heatwaves will become more frequent and intense in most regions across the globe.

The report also lists various changes that could impact Northern Europe and North America in the years to come, such as changed climate zones leading to warmer weather at high latitudes, upwards migration of the tree line in mountainous regions, increased thawing of permafrost, and changes in crop growth.

In addition, these areas will also experience larger and more frequent forest fires and more extreme weather events.

Moreover, in the northern hemisphere permafrost area, such as for example Russia and Canada, nearly four million people and around 70 percent of current infrastructure – including railways, pipelines, buildings and settlements – may be affected by damage resulting from thawing of near-surface permafrost, which could lead to for example soil erosion, disappearance of land due to coastal erosion and collapsing infrastructure.

In tropical regions, meanwhile, such as for example Africa and the Caribbean, warming is expected to result in “new, hot climates”, and a higher frequency of droughts, the report says.

“In order to stop the degradation of land, we need to act quickly, and we must act together. Preventing is a joint effort, and we need all countries and sectors to act and to do their part to cut emissions, reduce food waste, and stop deforestation, said Anne Sophie Daloz, senior researcher at CICERO.

Land use conflicts

Future land use depends in part on which climate targets we set and which solutions we will come up with, says the report. Modelled emissions paths limiting global warming to 1.5°C or well below 2°C require both land-based measures and land-use changes, including various combinations of tree planting, forest use, reduced deforestation and bio-energy.

“The report makes it clear that there is a trade-off between the amount of land used for mitigation versus the climate impacts on that land. To keep global average temperatures below 1.5°C or 2°C – as in the Paris Agreement – will require extensive use of land with consequent side-effects,” said Glen Peters, a research director at CICERO.

“Weaker climate mitigation, say keeping below 3°C, could avoid using land for mitigation, but will instead lead to significant climate impacts on land through desertification, degradation, biodiversity loss, and water stress. Smart policies will be needed to find the balance between these competing impacts,” Peters added.

In addition to studying the impact of climate change on land, the IPCC report also investigates how the use of land resources can contribute to tackling climate change and how this links to food security. 

What should be done?

The report shows that by preserving rain forest and peat bogs, some of the most expensive and risk-based measures can be avoided. Deforestation and destruction of peat bogs contribute to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and threaten biodiversity. It will be possible to exploit land areas in a sustainable way if we manage to cushion and reduce land degradation, find different solutions for various parts of the world and start cutting emissions as quickly as possible to prevent rising temperatures.

“The report highlights that there is a number of synergies, but also trade-offs, between various good causes such as food production, energy, carbon capture and biodiversity. We can expect awareness about land use to increase – not just locally and nationally, but also globally – and we will need to make real and difficult choices,” said Erlend T. Hermansen, senior researcher at CICERO.

“In addition to being good for the climate, implementing the changes suggested by the report can also be beneficial for our own health, and we can find new solutions that can increase our quality of life. Many of the changes needed can have positive side-effects for us as individuals,” added Daloz.