Land Use And Diets Need To Change, Now, Warns UN Report

A fresh warning shot has been fired by the IPCC, the world's foremost climate change body. India, which is already hurting, should read the fine print. Drought-hit Maharashtra has just broken a 50-year record, Chief Minister Fadnavis says, in the amount of water discharged from reservoirs in the Nashik region over the last few days. It is the latest in a year of extreme weather events. Think back to Cyclone Fani, 50ºC heatwaves, Chennai's drought, the Kerala floods.

Without specifying, the report links extreme weather events, like India's tragedies, to global warming. "Climate change can exacerbate land degradation processes (high confidence) including through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency and severity, heat stress, dry spells..."

There's a double whammy for mega-cities like Delhi-NCR, which could worsen heatwaves. A combination of "global warming and urbanisation can amplify warming in cities and their surroundings (heat island effect), especially during heat waves.

The UN's IPCC or the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has released a new report on Climate Change and Land. The report has been approved by the world's governments so it carries considerable weight. 

The report brings into sharp focus one big way that human beings can limit damage to the planet. Change the way we use land.

Of course, other problems like coal-fired power plants, fossil-fueled engines and biomass burning are bigger and must be addressed.

But the way humans use, or abuse, land causes 23 per cent of the net emissions of green-house gases. Land is part of the solution too. 

Less than a year ago, IPCC showed that while global warming was inevitable at this stage, the best case scenario now for millions of humans and millions of other species would be to limit warming to 1.5ºC. Anything higher would endanger most creatures and almost all ecospheres. 

Land may be less than 30% of the surface of the Earth but it's heating up faster than the sea. The land mean surface temperature has risen by an alarming 1.53°C since the late 19th century. In comparison, the global mean surface temperature has risen by about 0.87°C. 

A large group of IPCC scientists, including from India, have said in their report that "All assessed modeled pathways that limit warming to 1.5ºC or well below 2°C require land-based mitigation and land-use change." And how are we to achieve this mitigation and change? The report says with 'high confidence' the answer is mostly reforestation, afforestation, and reduced deforestation - but also in changing diets. 

"Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines - especially in the tropics - increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions," says Priyadarshi Shukla, a Co-Chair of IPCC report. "We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low - income countries."

It's not just India. Without naming the recent Arctic Circle fires, the heatwaves across Europe and Siberia and the rapid melting of ice fields in Greenland, the report links such events to global warming. It projects an increase in drought and wildfires in higher latitudes. 

Delaying action to reduce emissions is not an option. If there's business as usual it could result in some irreversible impacts on some ecosystems. And this can't be done in isolation by, say, only Maharashtra or only India, or only South Asia. Changes in land conditions can affect temperature and rainfall in regions as far as hundreds of kilometres away.

Much of this may seem overwhelming from an individual's point of view. But one of the key solutions is your diet.

The report is in favour of an organic, more vegetarian diet. It calls for "balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food." 

Additional green-house gas emissions have been blamed on rapidly rising consumption of meat and vegetable oils in recent decades and even the wasting of food. Currently, as much as 25-30% food produced is wasted or lost. During 2010-16, this has contributed to as much as a tenth of total man-made green-house gas emissions.

Changes in consumption patterns have contributed to about 2 billion adults now being overweight or obese. On the other hand, an estimated 821 million people are still undernourished, the report points out. So by not wasting food and through measures from organic farming to better packaging and education, we can free several million square kilometers of land by 2050. 

IPCC's landmark report has taken two years to prepare. But experts believe we have far less time - about 18 months, not 12 years as previously calculated - to act to limit rising temperatures. 

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.