The Land & Climate Podcast

Are carbon removal targets unrealistic about land requirements?

November 11, 2022 Land & Climate Review
The Land & Climate Podcast
Are carbon removal targets unrealistic about land requirements?
Show Notes Transcript

A major report published ahead of COP27 analysed national climate policies and found that "over-reliance on carbon removals could push ecosystems, land rights and food security to the brink."

Alasdair spoke to Dr. Kate Dooley, one of the Land Gap Report authors and a Research Fellow at Melbourne University’s Climate & Energy College, to hear about what policymakers are getting wrong.

Further reading from Dr. Dooley: 

Click here to visit The Negative Emissions Gamble, our curated collection of articles and podcasts on carbon removal.

Find more podcasts and articles at www.landclimate.org

Alasdair:

Hello, and welcome again to the Economy Land and Climate Podcast. In this episode I spoke to kate Dooley, Research Fellow at Melbourne University's Climate and Energy College and lead author of the Land Gap Report, published for the new global climate talks COP27. It looks at how countries are proposing to use land in their climate pledges and trying to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The report has some quite startling findings.

Kate:

Western scientists, scholars, academics and modelers are not taking into account who lives there, what is the local context, and how do we have community led and local led decisions around how land is used?

Alasdair:

I began by asking Kate to explain the basics of reports and its findings.

Kate:

So this new report, it's called the 'Land Gap Report', because it really started from conversations around how the framing of our climate goals as 'net zero' starts to shift a lot of focus to the land sector, because the land sector is the only sector that can actually remove emissions via photosynthesis. Trees and shrubs and other parts of land ecosystems, as well as coastal and marine ecosystems can remove carbon from the atmosphere. So at the moment, photosynthesis is really the main mechanism we have for removing carbon from the atmosphere. There are technologies under development, but it's trees that do that. So that means that everyone suddenly focused on achieving net zero goals and then looking at how can we do this via land based removals as well as people are, also countries, companies, are looking at how to reduce emissions, but we feel that the land based removals might be undermining some of the ambition and speed on reducing emissions. So we decided to do this report looking at the extent of removals that were actually in [country] and corporate net zero pledges. That's where it started but we quickly gave up on corporate because there has been some analysis done where we've sort of extrapolated via a few companies per sector, but it's too difficult to do that comprehensively. So we figured that if we put the boundary as countries we can comprehensively see what land based removals or CDR (carbon dioxide removal) countries are looking at in their climate pledges, both for mid century and the nearer term pledges, NDCs.

Alasdair:

And so your findings are?

Kate:

Our findings are after combing through all of the country climate pledges that have been submitted to the UN and then a little bit of extra information as well from from government statements, in aggregate, there's 1.2 billion hectares of land that would be included just for removals in country climate pledges. So we didn't count land when they talked about protecting forests and avoided emissions and the removals of forests we're already taking up because they were already there. So we're just talking about additional removals. But what's really important about this finding is like obviously, not all land sector activities are the same. And so we've made a broad division into land mitigation activities that require land use change. So basically planting new trees, expanding forest plantations, maybe commercial plantations, and land use activities that involve just restoring degraded ecosystems or degraded farmlands and range lands. So restoring a degraded ecosystem or farmland means there's not a land use change there, restoring a degraded forest, it makes the forest better. Restoring, we focused a lot on agriculture and the benefits of different approaches to agriculture, and a lot of countries had agricultural restoration in their pledges. So the important thing here is we're not trying to say all land use is bad in mitigation. It's just that there's a real risk that if there's too much new land expected, then we need to ask 'well, what was that land already doing before? Who lived on it? Who owned it, who farmed it?' And that's where it's really risky, where we start to get incentives to move land away from farming or food production, into storing carbon.

Alasdair:

1.2 billion hectares are devoted to removals in current country pledges. I mean, that's enormous, isn't it? I mean, that's what? That's bigger than than the size of China, isn't it?

Kate:

Yeah. 1.2 billion hectares in total is devoted to removals in all of the country climate pledges. That is pretty much equivalent to current global cropland area, it's larger than the United States, and four times the size of India. So it's a huge land area. It's larger than Australia, if you picture either the US or Australia. But half or just over half of that area, 633 million hectares, is for land use change, so new forest and tree planting. And a little bit under half is for restoration. So there is a big division now on what kinds of land activities countries are trying to do. And so we can't say all of that is bad. Obviously, if a country is planning to restore degraded forests, several countries talked about reducing harvest intensity or moving harvest out of native forests, that's a good action that has co benefits beyond just increasing carbon storage in the forest.

Alasdair:

Right. But I suppose one of the points that you make in the report is just the overall pledges and the detail is often unrealistic, I suppose. Is that Is that fair?

Kate:

Yeah, yeah, we call it 'the land gap' because we think there's a gap between how much countries can expect to rely on land for climate mitigation and what would realistically be available to deliver that. So to mobilise this amount of new land mitigation activities would be a huge effort from countries. And so this is in their pledges but the question is, 'are they going to do it?' So there's perhaps a gap between the ambition and the implementation but there's also a gap between a realistic assessment of how much land we can really devote to climate mitigation goals.

Alasdair:

And can you say something about how you think we've kind of arrived at this point that there are so many pledges that aren't necessarily realistic or practical?

Kate:

It goes back to my starting point I think, that the framing of climate goals as net zero has put a lot more focus on land. So one comparison I make; if you look at the objectives in the Kyoto Protocol, the use of land removals, carbon sequestration in forest projects was allowed into the Kyoto Protocol and the language there was through balancing emissions and sources. That's the same language that's used in the Paris Agreement, article 4.1 objective, which is what is widely interpreted as the net zero goal in the Paris Agreement. But the difference in the Kyoto Protocol is that was extremely limited. There were all kinds of rules and limits around that to the degree to which land could be used. Very, very small portion of forest removals, there was a lot of concern that allowing forests into the Kyoto Protocol would weaken countries' ambition and mitigation targets. Most of that didn't transpire as badly as people were worried. Australia was one of the only countries that really used the Kyoto Protocol land rules to cheat. The difference in the Paris Agreement is it's front and center in the main mitigation objective and there's no limit, it doesn't in a really specific way, say to what extent we should limit the reliance on land based removals to ensure that we actually reduce emissions. I mean, you can interpret it if you look more closely at that article, it does say rapid emission reductions, so peeking emissions as soon as possible and rapidly reducing emissions. So the emphasis is on emission reductions. But we've come out of the Paris Agreement, the whole world talking about net zero, and it becomes more and more abstract. We increasingly hear people just argue 'it doesn't matter if the emissions are removed, or not emitted in the first place.' And it actually really does matter. From a physics point of view, from a carbon cycle science and planetary boundaries point of view, it really matters if we emit more CO2 into the atmosphere, and then remove it some decades later. That is going to take us above our temperature tipping points.

Alasdair:

So effectively you're saying that you think that there should be some kind of reframing or better definition of framings around net zero and the 1.5 goals. Is that right?

Kate:

Yeah, I think it would be good if we had more guidance from the IPCC on what is the balance in terms of reducing emissions versus how much we can remove. There's been a lot of science the last few years just looking at this in terms of the capacity for removals. And I've done this myself, so working out globally, what's our potential for land based sequestration? People [are] looking at the technology options. I mean, the technology options are a little different from a carbon cycle viewpoint, but they don't exist at scale anyway. And I think what we need to do a lot more is look at this from a radiative forcing point of view, from a temperature balance point of view, which really comes into the temporal aspect of it. If we put emissions in the atmosphere and remove them later, that's affecting the temperature through that time period. If we looked at it from that point of view we could maybe get a clearer sense of 'what are the requirements for reducing emissions?' Like how much do we need to reduce emissions by, how quickly, to limit temperature to 1.5 degree? The mitigation scenarios we have at the moment and the IPCC don't really answer that question, because they include so much CDR.

Alasdair:

You mentioned the technologies. Because we've done quite a lot on this in past podcasts, I wondered if you could say something about the contribution of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in the research you did?

Kate:

Yeah. So a few years ago, I did some research on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in the climate scenario, the mitigation pathway modeling in the integrated assessment models. Really at the time, I was just looking at CDR in integrated assessment models, but it was mostly BECCS (we call bioenergy with carbon capture and storage BECCS), as well as reforestation, which is what I've been working on for decades. So now more technologies have been introduced, but initially, it was just those two. Anyway, it's still sort of 95% those two. I was looking at BECCS from a land use perspective, because my work is on land use and the issue really with the way it was included in the models was the scale of land use was enormous. In fact, the upper ranges of the required land use for 1.5 degree pathways in the 1.5 special report from the IPCC (that's 2018 that came out), were up to 1500 million hectares, 1200 to 1500 million hectares, I That's really interesting. And there's there's quite a stark foreword in your report seem to remember. That was the very upper range and the lower range was around 80 to 100 million hectares. So it's a similar amount of land that we're finding in the Land Gap Report. But half of it wasn't for restoration. All of it was for energy crops. Some of the work in there you can see pulls out and distinguishes the land that was needed for energy crop expansion, a lot of pasture land was used for that energy crop expansion. So there's big biodiversity and cultural issues there. Those pasture lands, native grasslands are used lands, they're not empty. So this scale of land use a lot of people, you know, a lot of people started working on this. It's a really unrealistic scale of land use. It might have seemed okay in models and for people who aren't really working on the ground at sort of practitioner or granular level, but the entire sort of forest and land use community globally was quite alarmed by this. A lot of work has since been done to look at more sensible ways and this is partly what our reports doing. What are the sensible ways of drawing carbon into land and what are not sensible? So energy crops, increasing the scale of the area of land we have for industrial agriculture is just not supportable. And then in the IPCC assessment more recently, that recently, the sixth assessment report, there is less BECCS in some scenarios, but you kind of have to separate them out. So if you look at the very low overshoot scenarios, so the scenarios that keep warming to 1.5 degrees, or only overshoot it by a 10th of a degree and bring it back down. So these are the scenarios that are more focused, you know, focused as aggressively as exists in that scenario set on emission reductions. The area of BECCS in there (and we've put this in the report) is, the median is, 199 million hectares, and the range is up to about 480 million. So it's still a lot of land, we don't have that land for bioenergy crops or trees that can be used for bioenergy. But the range has come down a little bit. And the attention I think, the attention of the modeling community and international policymakers or the sort of research community, I would say, in general, the awareness of the issues that come into play when you start to rely on land and think land can just be used for growing new crops or growing your trees, there's a much increased awareness of those issues. But we still need to keep working on that because people live on land. And the people who are living on land that is considered unused tend to be the most vulnerable people in society, often Indigenous people, local communities, and these are the people who are easily dispossessed by fluctuations in commodity prices, mitigation targets that incentivise land grabs. So we really don't want to see a global land grab for carbon sequestration or BECCS. from I think it's the UN Special Rapporteur on Food Security, where he says that land based carbon removal proposals ignore the presence of people and their land rights. You've said something about that but could you say just something a little bit more about the kind of contribution that you feel that, you know, Indigenous peoples and local communities play in removals? Yeah, that's a great question. So that we had a foreword from Michael Fakhri. He's the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. This is what's just really so important. And the message needs to be brought up again and again and again. You can't make expectations or plans or scenarios to use land without the acknowledgement and permission of people who live on that land. So Indigenous peoples have collective land rights to huge areas of land. In some places, those land rights are legally recognised by the government. And in many places they're not but under international law, they still have those collective land rights. The last few years is just yeah, there has been so much interest in land and land based mitigation. And we had maps of restoration hotspots, was it a couple of years ago in Nature, maps of restoration hotspots that looked at where there would be the most benefit for biodiversity. But often at this level, scientists, Western scientists, scholars, academics and modelers are not taking into account who lives there. What is the local context? And how do we have community led and local led decisions around how land is used. And so we really try and go into that in the report. We have a chapter on land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and a chapter on agroecology, which is an approach to agriculture that's widely practiced among more local and smallholder farmers and brings in different biodiversity elements into agriculture. But the main point in all of this is that these need to be locally led initiatives and decision making. And whilst this is really important from a human rights perspective, and not at all to undermine the need to take a rights based approach to climate mitigation, it also delivers the best results. So there's plenty of evidence showing that where the carbon and biodiversity currently is still remaining and highest on Earth intersects with where Indigenous peoples and local communities have collective rights to land.

Alasdair:

I wondered also, if you could say something about parts of the report where you talk about the carbon accounting. And essentially, I suppose the point that as I understood it is that all carbon is not equal in the way that we count our carbon.

Kate:

So this is another point, this is kind of skipping back into a more technical considerations. It's similar to the point around net zero. So the net zero climate goal has enabled people to very much abstract out whether we're reducing emissions and not emitting them to start with or removing them when they're very different things and have different physical effects on our planet. And so in terms of carbon accounting, all carbon is not equal. And that exists sort of across sectors and within sectors. So carbon from fossil fuels is not the same and it's not commensurable with carbon sequestration into trees and land use. And that's just a fundamental of the carbon cycle because fossil fuels are permanently stored away carbon, they're not actually part of the carbon cycle. When we add them to the carbon cycle through fossil fuel combustion, then we increase the amount of CO2 in the carbon cycle in aggregate. So pulling it into trees doesn't take it out. The only way to take it out is back into geological sequestration. So those two shouldn't be seen as an offset, it shouldn't be seen as an offset that if we plant trees, we can burn more coal. It's just completely not the way out of the climate crisis. But also what I think is less understood is particularly when we're talking about terrestrial ecosystems, land based carbon, there's different quality of carbon effectively, and this depends on, this is related to ecosystem integrity and biodiversity. So the carbon that's in a intact primary forest is going to be very stable and resilient, because there's high levels of biodiversity there. And it's that carbon that's the building block for biodiversity. And that's what enables the, or increases the resilience of the forests. So primary and intact forests aren't fragmented, are also more resistant to drought and pests and that sort of thing, whereas if we grow a monoculture plantation to sequester carbon, that carbon is much more at risk of reversal through wildfire or something else. And we've seen that time and time again around the world. There's countless examples of that. So we should also be considering and there's a UN ecosystem accounting approach that has been developed only about two years ago that recognises that or that looks at ecosystem integrity, and includes that into the accounting. And it wouldn't actually be that difficult if we separated out fossil and biological carbon to then have biological carbon, the biodiversity and ecosystem integrity of that included in how we account for it. And then we incentivise keeping forests standing over growing new trees.

Alasdair:

What reflections does this report gives you on where climate policymaking now is, given the really quite striking conclusions you make in the report around the lack of realism, the lack of foresight about the analysis that is being made, and the recommendations that are being made in things like the various country pledges? I mean, what does that make you think about climate policymaking?

Kate:

It's not black and white. And it's not straightforward and simple, because we reviewed all countries. And so there's a huge amount of differentiation in how countries are approaching the land sector. So there's some countries that really stand out as 'we're going to plant huge areas of trees.' And obviously, they're relying on that for climate mitigation strategy. There's a lot of countries and in particular, it's the poorer developing countries, who have very detailed and sophisticated and important plans in how they're going to improve their agricultural sectors, because often that is such an important part of their economy, and they don't have a lot of, or any fossil fuel emissions or very little. So countries are all in different places with how they're approaching land in climate mitigation. And they have different motivations for doing so in different circumstances. So I think what's really needed at the international level, like I think this is valuable input for something like the global stocktake, to acknowledge the different approaches to land in climate mitigation and adaptation. Generally, when land is included in adaptation it's good approaches to land, and when it's included in mitigation, we get the risk of just planting lots of trees, because no one plants lots of trees for adaptation without making sure they're the right tree in the right places, because otherwise they won't help anybody to adapt. So probably one message for policymakers would be in terms of land focus on adaptation policies, because we tend to deliver better outcomes there. As a cobenefit, there'll be some mitigation benefit out of that. People looking at land for climate mitigation could learn a lot from adaptation, we need to start to have a better understanding of what good land management approaches are.

Alasdair:

At the beginning, you mentioned that you'd started researching and looking at corporate pledges on removals. I just wondered, is that something that you're planning to go back to? And is that something that can be added into the analysis that you've done around the country contributions in the sense that you know, we've now got, what's being attempted, is a kind of development of commercial carbon markets and the use of offsets and the use of quite a lot of removals in those markets and I just wondered, is there a plan to add this all up?

Kate:

No. I mean, it could be done. Many, many things could be done if people want to do them. This research is sitting out there now and all the data will be available and it can be built on in a lot of different ways. I'd say this is definitely a first step to quantify and aggregate the land for carbon removal in country climate plans. And these plans are very vague, there's not a lot of detail. They use different kinds of metrics and ways to convey what they're planning to do. So we had to make a lot of assumptions and interpret. So plans may get clearer over time. And this could be done with more certainty. In terms of corporate climate pledges, they're even vaguer. Often they don't say anything beyond a net zero target by a certain date. So who knows what they're planning to do? There are some corporations and people I've seen, Oxfam and Greenpeace and others have quantified carbon removals from some corporate pledges. The problem was saying, 'Oh well let's quantify all of those and add them to this' is obviously - they're overlapping areas of land. Neither countries nor corporations are saying where this land is, whose land is it, who owns it, what is being done on it. So these are very abstract non spatial pledges of land claims, and they overlap. The other area of land pledges that has been quantified is restoration pledges. So PBL, the Netherlands Environment Agency, I think just about a year ago, put out a report and they found around a billion hectares of land in restoration pledges. It's interesting to think about the difference between that work and what we did. So firstly, their work, they were looking at land area pledges. So when countries had said how much land they were going to restore in area. We also included when countries said 'we're going to sequester 5 million tonnes of carbon a year through tree planting', and they didn't say how much land that would take, we worked at how much land. So different approaches, but also mostly they were very different pledges. So we only looked at land in climate mitigation pledges, and occasionally a country would include something like their Bonn challenge or their AFR African Forest Restoration Initiative pledge, but not often. I was actually surprised several countries who had large restoration pledges hadn't included them in their NDC and their climate mitigation plan. I think for the most part, our study and the PBL study are talking about different areas of land or different sets of pledges. If we looked at cooperations that'd be a different set of land again. All of this land adds up to not being there. It's not realistic that land is not realistically there for all of those activities to happen.

Alasdair:

My thanks to Kate Dooley for her time in making this podcast. If you can, do take a look at our website, as we'll shortly be publishing a new series of articles and research on so called negative emissions. Do feel free to give us a review as well if you find what you heard interesting. Thanks for listening!