Guest Article #19

New Climate Regime: Soil as the medium for change

The international community should prioritize sustainable land and water management in order to address climate change more effectively. The new climate change regime should also provide for greater synergy among the Rio Conventions than is the case under the Kyoto Protocol.

This is the gist of the message that emerged from the interaction between climate change negotiators and stakeholders of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) during Land Day, organized by the UNCCD on 6 June 2009 on the margins of the Bonn Climate Change Talks.

Climate Change and Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought (DLDD): Competition, the threat to the sustainability of life on Earth

“If human needs are to be met, the Earth's natural resources must be conserved and enhanced.” In the new climate change regime, political commitment to sustainable land management (SLM) must be renewed to revitalize this statement by the World Commission for Environment and Development (or the Brundtland Commission), which is more relevant today than 20 years ago, by focusing on enhancing the capacities of land to adapt and mitigate climate change. Combating desertification and land degradation are even greater challenges today in light of the scientific evidence that up to a third of the world's greenhouse gases (GHGs) is emitted by deforestation, land degradation and agriculture, all in an effort to meet current food needs. At issue is how to manage competing needs such as addressing the current food crisis, meeting future food demands, eliminating poverty through agricultural growth and providing access to water and sanitation, while minimizing GHG emissions.

Creating a win-win situation

Participants at Land Day, who included scientists and climate change negotiators, agreed that a focus on improving soil health by farmers and herders has multiple benefits because soil organic matter increases production. Agricultural practices that involve land non-tillage minimize the emission of carbon, while agroforestry, mulching, crop rotation and other such practices enhance soil carbon sequestration. These, in turn, improve land productivity and soil water retention. Sustainable land and water management provides the avenue through which carbon dioxide can be converted from a GHG into organic soil carbon, a food-producing asset. Therefore, paying attention to the level of organic carbon in soils provides a good measure of soil health. This paradigm shift – from assessing the carbon content solely in the air to that in the soil as well – can re-direct the perceptions of various interests from competing land uses to the desired win-win outcomes. In short, sustainable land and water management geared towards improving soil health through increased organic soil carbon is a useful frame for reconciling diverse interests.

Role of land in mitigating climate change

Scientists estimate that 23-44 Gigatonnes of carbon could be stored in agricultural soils by 2050. Yet, soil carbon sequestration is barely in the current agenda for climate change negotiators who are planning for the period beyond 2012. This situation is attributed, first, to knowledge gaps. Certainty about the soil's potential to sequester carbon came after the political deal was brokered in Bali in late 2007 on the scope of the post-Kyoto agreement, and confined it to Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). However, the additional benefits of poverty alleviation and development could be realized by integrating land in the provisions of NAMAs.

Second, soil carbon sequestration is outside the new climate regime because the capacity of soils to sequester carbon depends on soil type, but the methods needed to assess such differences are under-developed. At present, scientists combine soil sampling techniques and remote sensing, but key components are missing. For example, there are no internationally agreed baselines of soil carbon content or techniques to carry out life-cycle analyses of soil carbon storage, nor methods to determine overall soil carbon sequestration among small-scale farmers. These need to be prioritized if energy efficiency and carbon sequestration are to work for soil amendment and land rehabilitation.

Given these constraints, the identification of feasible ways to promote soil carbon sequestration became a second running theme of Land Day. In addition to NAMAs, promoting synergies among the three Rio Conventions – the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UNCCD – was identified as one avenue. For example, promoting sustainable land and water management together would have significant results. Such an emphasis by the UNCCD in the drylands alone would lead to the sequestration of 0.4-0.6 Gigatonnes of soil carbon every year, that is, between 16-25 Gigatonnes by 2050. This is a significant amount considering that agricultural land would sequester twice that amount over the same period. However, new and additional resources would be needed to support these new avenues, particularly in developing countries. The implementation of the Conventions through joint initiatives and strategies has the added value of developing and testing much-needed measurement tools for soil carbon sequestration.

Role of land in adapting to climate change

Climate change adaptation constituted the third concern for Land Day. While the effects of climate change are understood largely at the systemic, not local levels, two known facts about climate change make adaptation of particular concern to stakeholders of the UNCCD. First, there is scientific certainty that climate change will make droughts worse – longer and more intense – and emerge in areas without prior drought experience. The UNCCD is mandated to deal with drought, and thus concerned about adaptation possibilities among drought-stricken communities. Second, adaptation to climate change will require investment at the household level, but the UNCCD's constituency will find it difficult to adapt. A significant proportion of the world's population – one out of every three – lives in areas affected by DLDD. Half of this population is the poorest of the world's poor and thus lacks the resources to adapt. Therefore, some measures are needed to strengthen the resilience of these communities and to diversify their economic activities, as well as insurance and emergency response policies that can be mobilized in the event of climate-related disasters. The need for synergy among the Conventions seems obvious given their complementarities. The UNFCCC is designed to minimize effects at a systemic level, but lacks the UNCCD's operational structure penetrating lower levels – among individuals and households – where the effects of climate change are felt, and where the UNCCD is strong.

Conclusion

SLM and Convention synergies are two missing essentials in the draft text for the post-2012 period, yet they are unlikely to find their way back into the process. Therefore, the key challenge for the current generation of climate change negotiators is to design a “living climate change deal,” that is, a deal with mechanisms to allow the integration of new measures as science catches up with politics, and vice-versa. It can be done.

About the UNCCD

Developed as a result of the Rio Summit, the UNCCD is a unique instrument that has brought attention to land degradation in some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and affected populations in the world. Thirteen years after coming into force, the UNCCD benefits from the largest membership of the three Rio Conventions and is recognized as an instrument that can make an important contribution to the achievement of sustainable development and generate global benefits. The Report and policy briefs from Land Day are available at http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/landday/menu.php