As the world gears up for the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris this December, almost all of the talk is about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning. How much will countries cut their emissions? When will they commit to having their emissions peak? But there’s another major component that’s being neglected: the way we manage our forests and other lands, which can serve as carbon sinks.
Big carbon polluters are failing to offer strong, specific plans for land use as part of the pledges they’re releasing ahead of the Paris talks, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The U.S. and the European Union ignored the land-use sector almost completely in their INDCs, says report coauthor Doug Boucher. The report examines the land-use pledges from four countries that did address the sector: China, Canada, Morocco, and Ethiopia. UCS finds that Morocco and Ethiopia, minor players on the global stage, are far clearer about how they will make progress on reforestation and reducing emissions from agriculture than China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and Canada, the ninth biggest emitter and one of the very worst in terms of per capita emissions. “The small countries have been more transparent, more clear and detailed about their actions than the big countries have,” Boucher tells Grist.
“The INDCs both of China and Canada are disappointing … in different ways,” the report finds. “China falls short by not presenting a detailed framework on how to account for forest emissions and sequestration, though it is transparent and specific on actions relating to agriculture, forestry, and other land use.” In other words, China says it will improve sequestration through policies like improved rice field management and forestry management, but makes no promises as to how much increased sequestration it will deliver. It’s also unclear to what extent China is promising new policies versus projecting future benefits of policies that have already been adopted. “Conversely,” UCS writes, “discussion of the land sector in Canada’s INDC is limited to accounting. The document’s absence of land-sector emissions-mitigation efforts and of detailed actions makes it impossible to say whether Canada’s ambitions adequately reflect its capacities and responsibilities.”
Plants and soil soak up carbon, and one of the reasons carbon emissions are rising so rapidly is that we are losing or degrading these carbon sinks. From chopped-down forests to trampled grasslands to burping cows, agriculture, forestry, and other land use account for between 21 to 24 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we reforested our lands and increased the capacity of our carbon sinks in other ways, it would help reduce our net carbon emissions. UCS found in a 2014 report that “over half of the gap between what countries intend to do to reduce emissions and what is needed to avoid dangerous climate change could be closed by stronger actions in the land sector.”
There are ample opportunities to make land use more climate-friendly. In the U.S., for example, huge areas in the West are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and leased to ranchers for cattle grazing for fees that are below market rate and way below what they would need to be to account for their environmental impact. Reforming those leasing programs to charge more or just eliminate grazing on public lands altogether would allow damaged grasslands to regrow and absorb more carbon.
So why aren’t developed nations’ INDCs including more specifics on how they will improve land use and measure progress? In part it’s just an oversight because developed countries emit so much through burning fossil fuels for electricity, industry, and transportation. “They may look at their overall economy and say agriculture and forestry are a small percentage of the economy and think they don’t make a big difference, so they focus on the fossil fuel sectors,” says Boucher. “I don’t think they’ve realized there are substantial emissions from the land sector and that the potential for sequestration is quite large.”
But there are also political limitations. In the U.S., ranchers are a powerful political force in many sparely populated states that are over-represented in the Senate and Electoral College. Tea Partiers and many other conservatives believe that federal lands essentially belong to ranchers. Cliven Bundy, a welfare queen who masquerades as a rugged individualist, was hailed by the right as a hero after it came to light that he had refused to pay his grazing fees for years. When President Clinton tried to reform the federal grazing program in the 1990s, he ran straight into a wall of opposition, and a president today could expect to encounter the same thing.
Still, the U.S. does need to reform grazing policy and make other improvements to land management. If we stopped letting cattle graze on federal land and allowed the vegetation there to naturally regrow, we’d save on emissions from lowered beef production and increase the capacity of the land to serve as a carbon sink. President Obama could take some action in this area without approval from Congress, just as he has the power to restrict fossil fuel exploration on public lands. Given that U.S. action to limit emissions helps induce other countries to step up the strength of their climate goals, now would be a great time for Obama to lay out a plan for rebuilding our carbon sinks and call on other countries to do the same.