Countries' climate pledges put unrealistic demands for land ahead of emissions reductions

Countries favour risky tree-planting schemes over protecting, restoring and sustainably managing the forests we already have standing, with research showing national carbon plans requiring a land area larger than the size of the US, or almost four times the land area of India.

A new study released today is the first to calculate that countries collectively need a total of 1.2 billion hectares of land to fulfill the promises laid out in their official climate plans, part of global efforts to meet Paris Agreement goals.

The study, involving more than 20 researchers from around the world and released today by Melbourne Climate Futures, determines that countries intend to use 633 million hectares of the total land area for carbon capture tactics like tree planting, which would gobble up land desperately needed for food production and nature protection.

Only 551 million hectares accounted for in pledges would restore degraded lands and primary forests, which store carbon, regulate rainfall and local temperatures, shelter plants and animals, purify water and air and in some cases belong to Indigenous Peoples, whose land rights are found to be critical to reducing climate change due to their stewardship of forests.

“Land has a critical role to play in global efforts to keep the planet cool, but it's not a silver bullet solution,” said Dr Kate Dooley, the lead author of The Land Gap Report and a researcher at the University of Melbourne. “This study reveals that countries’ climate pledges are dangerously over-reliant on inequitable and unsustainable land-based measures to capture and store carbon.”

“Clearly, countries are loading up on land pledges to avoid the hard work of steeply reducing emissions from fossil fuels, decarbonizing food systems and stopping the destruction of forests and other ecosystems,” she said.

In critical research ahead of the COP27 conference in Egypt commencing 6 October, the report examines official climate plans and public statements, including Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which countries submitted to the United Nations as part of the Paris Agreement, to calculate the total land area set aside for carbon removals.

Unlike other “gap” reports, including the recently released UNEP Emissions Gap report, which describe a divide between mitigation ambition and the emissions reductions needed to achieve global climate goals, this analysis demonstrates the chasm between governments’ reliance on land for carbon mitigation purposes and the role that land can realistically play due to competing needs and in light of human rights.

“Countries treat land like a limitless resource in their climate plans,” said Dr Dooley. “Using a land area equivalent to half of current global croplands for tree planting simply won’t work, particularly when the evidence in front of us shows the fragility of tree planting to worsening climate impacts like fires and droughts.”

The researchers argue that the most problematic climate plans involve transforming land currently used for other purposes, such as food production, into tree-covered areas, such as monoculture plantations.

The report says that these land changes would encroach on land safeguarded by Indigenous Peoples or used by local communities and smallholder farmers to feed themselves.

At the same time, over 20 countries pledge to plant trees in an integrated manner with crops and livestock (agroforestry), which brings multiple socio-ecological benefits such as food productivity, livelihoods and wellbeing.

The report lays out how countries – as well as companies seeking to deliver on zero-carbon pledges – could reorient their climate plans towards these three goals:

  • Focus on protecting and restoring forests
  • Safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Transform unsustainable food and agricultural production systems
  • Understand that not all carbon is the same
  • Monitor corporate pledges

“Fortunately, it isn’t too late for countries to rethink the way they use land to achieve their climate goals,” said Brendan Mackey, a report co-author and a professor at Griffith University, Australia.

“A three-step approach that prioritises the protection of forests and other ecosystems, then focuses on restoration and sustainable land use would help achieve climate outcomes in addition to food production, biodiversity and human rights goals.

The Land Gap Report grew from a sapling grant provided by Melbourne Climate Futures CRX funding.

Read the full report