Land ‘abuse’ must be stopped to avoid catastrophic climate change, scientists warn

Leading scientists have warned that land abuse by humans - including crop biofuels production - must be stopped to avoid catastrophic climate heating. In a stark condemnation, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said human activities have degraded soils, expanded deserts, and turned land from being a resource that combats climate change into a major source of global warming emissions.

Almost a quarter (23%) of all greenhouse gas emissions are now estimated to come from land use, and intensive farming methods and timber production often increases these emissions, the scientists said. Unfarmed land covered with vegetation protects the planet from overheating as the plants absorb CO2 from the air and store it in the soil.

Crop biofuels, which cause deforestation, destruction of carbon sinks and biodiversity loss, is one of multiple competing demands for land. The UN report says we now need to make difficult decisions about which land uses we prioritise. It calls for the protection of as much natural forest and peatlands as possible, particularly in the tropics, where palm oil is cultivated. The scientists highlight the negative impacts biofuels have on food security and say that waste and residues can be a sustainable source of biofuels production. They also said humans need to eat less red meat and more vegetables to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Earlier this year the European Commission decided that palm oil is not a green fuel and should not be promoted because it causes deforestation. The use of palm oil in diesel, which is driven by the EU’s renewable energy targets, will be frozen at 2019 consumption levels and then gradually reduced as of 2023, reaching zero in 2030 although exemptions remain. 

T&E said the move was a milestone in the fight to recognise the climate impact of burning food for energy. However, it warned that loopholes mean some palm oil could still be promoted as a ‘green’ road fuel. while soy, a major contributor to deforestation worldwide and especially in Brazil and Argentina, had not been phased out.

A landmark study for the European Commission revealed that biodiesel from palm oil is three times worse for the climate than regular diesel while soy oil diesel is two times worse. Growing demand for biofuels like palm oil and soy increases pressure on agricultural land which leads to deforestation.

Laura Buffet, energy director of T&E said: “We need to stop the madness of burning food in cars, trucks and planes. The EU biofuels policy has added a tremendous amount of extra pressure on such a precious resource like land, increasing and not reducing emissions from transport. Land should be used to feed people, provide a home for wildlife and capture CO2, not to power cars and trucks. We urge EU governments to, at the very least, phase out all biofuels made from vegetable oils including palm oil starting in 2021.

However, the IPCC report was criticised for underestimating the real cost to the climate and environment of current land use. It highlights that some plants could be used to produce energy on a local scale, provided specific criteria are met, but the scientists did not factor in the lost opportunities for storing carbon that the land would offer were it not being farmed, critics argued.