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Plant-Based Diets Can Combat Climate Change, Report Finds

Better land management practices combined with plant-based diets are effective in tackling climate change and mitigating its effects.

Switching to a plant-based diet could help prevent desertification, scientists say
Aug. 13, 2019
By Isabel Putinja
Switching to a plant-based diet could help prevent desertification, scientists say

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A new report by the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPPC) high­lights bet­ter global land man­age­ment and a move towards plant-based diets as effec­tive ways to com­bat cli­mate change.

The IPPC’s in-depth study, Cli­mate Change and Land,” was pre­pared by an inter­na­tional team of 107 experts from 52 coun­tries and explores how land use con­tributes to cli­mate change while also exam­in­ing the effects of cli­mate change on land and food secu­rity. This was the first and most com­pre­hen­sive study of the global land-cli­mate sys­tem. The IPPC is the United Nations body charged with assess­ing sci­ence related to cli­mate change.

Bal­anced diets fea­tur­ing plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and veg­eta­bles, and ani­mal-sourced food pro­duced sus­tain­ably in low green­house gas emis­sion sys­tems, present major oppor­tu­ni­ties for adap­ta­tion to and lim­it­ing cli­mate change.- Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPPC Work­ing Group II

The main mes­sage of the com­pre­hen­sive report is that in order to reduce green­house gases in a sig­nif­i­cant way and keep cli­mate change in check, changes are needed in global land use, agri­cul­ture and dietary habits.

It describes land as a crit­i­cal resource that must remain pro­duc­tive to ensure food secu­rity. When agri­cul­tural land loses its pro­duc­tiv­ity, this results in soil degra­da­tion, ero­sion, and even­tu­ally deser­ti­fi­ca­tion. Such land can­not absorb car­bon and con­tributes to cli­mate change while hav­ing a neg­a­tive effect on food secu­rity.

See more: Cli­mate Change News

Land plays an impor­tant role in the cli­mate sys­tem,” said Jim Skea, one of the report’s authors and co-chair of the IPC­C’s Work­ing Group III, which exam­ines the mit­i­ga­tion of cli­mate change. Agri­cul­ture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 per­cent of human green­house gas emis­sions. At the same time nat­ural land processes absorb car­bon diox­ide equiv­a­lent to almost a third of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from fos­sil fuels and indus­try.”

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The threat of soil degra­da­tion and ero­sion can be addressed through sus­tain­able land man­age­ment. Some of the mea­sures sug­gested in the study include the cul­ti­va­tion of green manure crops and cover crops, crop residue reten­tion, reduced or zero tillage and improved graz­ing prac­tices to pre­serve ground cover. Mean­while other sus­tain­able agri­cul­tural prac­tices deemed to be ben­e­fi­cial to the preser­va­tion of land, include agroe­col­ogy and agro­forestry, con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture, crop diver­sity, crop rota­tion, organic farm­ing, the preser­va­tion of pol­li­na­tors, and rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing.

The choices we make about sus­tain­able land man­age­ment can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts,” said Kiy­oto Tan­abe, one of the experts and co-chair of the IPCC task force on national green­house gas inven­to­ries. In a future with more inten­sive rain­fall the risk of soil ero­sion on crop­lands increases, and sus­tain­able land man­age­ment is a way to pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties from the detri­men­tal impacts of this soil ero­sion and land­slides. How­ever there are lim­its to what can be done, so in other cases degra­da­tion might be irre­versible.”

There is real poten­tial here through more sus­tain­able land use, reduc­ing over-con­sump­tion and waste of food, elim­i­nat­ing the clear­ing and burn­ing of forests, pre­vent­ing over-har­vest­ing of fuel­wood, and reduc­ing green­house gas emis­sions, thus help­ing to address land-related cli­mate change issues,” added Pan­mao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC Work­ing Group I, which looks at the phys­i­cal sci­ence of cli­mate change.

But bet­ter land man­age­ment is not the only solu­tion to tack­ling cli­mate change and mit­i­gat­ing its effects. The IPCC experts sug­gest that a reduc­tion in resource-heavy meat con­sump­tion and an increased uptake of plant-based diets could free up land and reduce CO2 emis­sions by up to eight bil­lion met­ric tons per year by 2050.

Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Work­ing Group II, charged with assess­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of socio-eco­nomic and nat­ural sys­tems to cli­mate change, con­firmed that diet has a sig­nif­i­cant effect on cli­mate change

Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emis­sions of heat-trap­ping gases than oth­ers,” she said. Bal­anced diets fea­tur­ing plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and veg­eta­bles, and ani­mal-sourced food pro­duced sus­tain­ably in low green­house gas emis­sion sys­tems, present major oppor­tu­ni­ties for adap­ta­tion to and lim­it­ing cli­mate change.”

The study’s experts also point out that bet­ter land man­age­ment prac­tices com­bined with a move towards plant-based diets and a reduc­tion in food waste do not only have the poten­tial to mit­i­gate cli­mate change but also result in pos­i­tive socio-eco­nomic effects. These changes can erad­i­cate poverty and hunger while improv­ing pub­lic health and the avail­abil­ity of clean water.

This lat­est IPCC report was approved in Geneva on August 7 at the IPC­C’s 50th ses­sion and pre­sented at a press con­fer­ence the next day at the World Mete­o­ro­log­i­cal Orga­ni­za­tion (WMO).

The report will pro­vide sci­en­tific inputs into nego­ti­a­tions at upcom­ing cli­mate con­fer­ences, includ­ing the Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties of the U.N. Con­ven­tion to Com­bat Deser­ti­fi­ca­tion (COP14) to be held in New Delhi, India in Sep­tem­ber and the U.N. Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence (COP25) sched­uled for Decem­ber in San­ti­ago, Chile.





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