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Three Big Ideas for Land Use That Could Turn the Climate Tide

Here are three big ideas for how we can refine and improve the ways we use land that will not only help protect our health and livelihoods but also help us end the climate crisis.


We know that to end the climate crisis we have to make some big changes – and we’re not just talking light bulbs here.

We’re talking about the types of energy we consume. The ways we power our lives and get around. Right down to the ground beneath our feet.

Now it’s official. The newest report from the global super group of climate scientists known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change and Land, highlights the danger of a warming world for the land and soil we depend on for almost everything. Not only the danger, but also the tremendous dents in emissions we can make by changing our approach to land and soil.

The report’s authors don’t waste time laying out what’s at stake here:

“Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being, including the supply of food, freshwater and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity.”

But, the report continues, “Climate change creates additional stresses on land, exacerbating existing risks to livelihoods, biodiversity, human and ecosystem health, infrastructure, and food systems. Increasing impacts on land are projected under all future GHG emission scenarios. Some regions will face higher risks, while some regions will face risks previously not anticipated. Cascading risks with impacts on multiple systems and sectors also vary across regions.”

In regular person-on-the-street English, IPCC scientists are saying that so many of the consequences of a warmer world playing out in full public view – think more destructive hurricanes like Dorian, longer droughts, off-kilter water cycles – are already having profound effects on the soil we rely on for pretty much everything. And we can’t plan for everything coming to the soil. Only that more is on the way – no matter what.

Let that sink in for just a second.

Land and how we use it is fundamental to human survival on Earth. And it’s all on the line because of the climate crisis.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be.

The report details how changes in land use affect the climate itself, as well as the climate threat to agriculture and crop security. But it also hits on something equally important: the ways climate-smart land management practices can both support human health and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving this crisis.

So what can we do to turn this thing around? Below, check out three big ideas for how we can refine and improve the ways we use land that will not only help protect our health and livelihoods but also help us end the climate crisis.

Changing How We Farm

The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today. Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for just under 25 percent of all human-created GHG emissions.

But there are a number of agricultural practices we can adopt that will not only dial down carbon emissions from the sector, but also transform much of our agricultural land into effective carbon sinks, helping mitigate the risks the IPCC identifies to our food systems and climate.

These include working to use farmland more efficiently by growing more food using less space and reforming our approach to land-intensive animals like cows.

In general, according to the IPCC report, “diets based on plants and sustainably raised livestock can reduce livestock-based emissions of methane and nitrous oxide (two key greenhouse gases) while also reducing overall land use,” the Weather Channel reports.

In particular, farms both big and small should consider cover crops and crop rotation, as well as precision watering to avoid wasting an ever-more-precious resource.

>> Free Download: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis <<

We should probably take a second here to define what we’re talking about. When we say cover crops we’re talking about “a crop of a specific plant that is grown primarily for the benefit of the soil rather than the crop yield.” Typically with an eye toward managing soil erosion and quality, suppressing weeds, pests and diseases, and improving soil fertility and biodiversity.

Crop rotation, on the other hand, refers to the practice of growing a series of different crops in the same area in successive seasons to avoid depleting the soil of certain nutrients. Crop rotation also helps feed nutrients to other plants (remember, a plant’s relationship with the earth is give and take).

Together, they mitigate the reality a popular farming truism hits on: “Bare soil is bad soil.”

Left exposed to the elements, soil will erode and the nutrients necessary for successful plant growth will either dry out or quite literally wash away. At the same time, planting the same plants in the same location can lead to a buildup of some nutrients and a lack of others.

But by rotating crops and deploying cover crops strategically, farms and gardens can infuse soils with more and more (and more diverse) soil organic matter, often while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally.

Using cover crops and rotation techniques doesn’t only help crops (and the people who depend on them). It also comes with a major climate benefit.

A bare, open, unproductive plot does nothing to help us rein in carbon emissions (indeed, it can even contribute to them). Flourishing cover crops, on the other hand, actually pull carbon from the air. Combined with a low- or no-till approach to farming – i.e., growing crops with minimal disturbance to the soil through tillage or plowing – it puts the carbon back where it belongs: In the ground, where it can remain stored in soils for thousands of years.

You’ve probably heard this process referred to as “carbon sequestration.” It’s one of our best natural solutions to the climate crisis. And it brings us to…

Stop Cutting Down Trees and Plant More of Them

There’s no two ways about it, reforestation is the single largest nature-based climate mitigation opportunity we have.

Indeed, the CEO of American Forests went so far as to tell, “Planting trees and improving the health of existing forests will be a deciding factor in whether we are able to get ahead of the climate curve.”

That sounds about right.

Research has shown that our forests alone have the potential to remove the emissions from about 155 million cars from the atmosphere. The power of trees doesn’t end there either. Reforesting previously forested lands has the potential to eliminate the emissions of nearly 65 million more passenger cars.

So it’s no surprise then that countries like Ethiopia – which is dealing with increased desertification and worsening drought thanks to rising temperatures – are turning to trees to ease the impacts of the climate crisis. The African nation even recently set a world record by planting 350 million trees in a single day.

Ethiopia Plants 350 Million Trees to Fight Deforestation

Ethiopia planted a record-breaking 350 million trees in 12 hours to fight climate change (via NowThis Future)

Posted by NowThis Politics on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Additional benefits of reforestation include cleaner water, cleaner air, flood control, more fertile soils, and increased economic opportunity.

But we’re not just talking about sprawling, remote forests.

If you’ve sweated through a summer day in almost any big city, you know all about the phenomenon scientists call “the urban heat island effect.” The short version is that all the concrete and buildings and roads in urban environments absorb more heat than surrounding areas, making them as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than rural areas at times.

This effect is getting worse in many major metropolitan areas, and a big reason why is that cities are cutting down trees – particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

“A study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found Louisville [Kentucky] to be getting hotter faster than any of the other 50 largest US metropolitan areas, compared with the rural areas around them. One reason cities tend to be hotter? Fewer trees,” NPR reports.

“Louisville is losing 54,000 trees each year from development, natural disasters, disease, invasive species, and lack of tree care. And it's not alone. From 2009 to 2014, 44 states lost tree cover in urban areas — that's around 28.5 million trees lost every year, according to the US Forest Service.”

There are two points here. First, forests can do an incredible job at pulling the carbon emissions driving the crisis from the atmosphere, and we should double-down on both protecting our existing ones while working to build new forest ecosystems. Second, tree canopies in urban areas can help residents deal with the existing effects of the climate crisis, like extreme heat, so we should be protecting and expanding those too.

Treat Coastal Ecosystems with Greater Care

Alongside farmlands and forests, wetland ecosystems offer great potential for capturing and storing carbon naturally, while also protecting coastal communities from the impacts of climate change.

Wetlands can store carbon at particularly high rates per hectare – salt marsh and mangrove forests suck up carbon 40 times faster than traditional forests do.

But let’s look specifically at beneficial role mangrove forests have on the coastal communities near them in our warming world.

We know that the climate crisis is driving all sorts of wild weather all over the globe, and coastal communities have to worry about two impacts, in particular: increasing storm surge and supercharged tropical storm systems.

In a wide-ranging report, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, and the University of Cambridge explored the role mangrove forests play in coastal ecosystems. The report found that mangroves protect coastlines from climate-exacerbated natural hazards like hurricanes, sea-level rise, erosion, and more in numerous ways, including:

  • “Wind and swell waves are rapidly reduced as they pass through mangroves, lessening wave damage during storms.
  • Wide mangrove belts, ideally thousands of meters across, can be effective in reducing the flooding impacts of storm surges occurring during major storms (also called cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes). This can significantly reduce flood extent in low lying areas. Narrower mangrove belts, hundreds of meters wide, will still be able to reduce wind speed, the impact of waves on top of the surge and flooding impact to some degree.
  • Wide areas of mangroves can reduce tsunami heights, helping to reduce loss of life and damage to property in areas behind mangroves.
  • The dense roots of mangroves help to bind and build soils. The above-ground roots slow down water flows, encourage deposition of sediments and reduce erosion.
  • Over time mangroves can actively build up soils, increasing the thickness of the mangrove soil, which may be critical as sea level rise accelerates.”

Despite all these benefits, we’re cutting down mangroves in Florida as well as mangrove swamps (called mangals) and other important coastal wetlands along the US Gulf and Carolina coasts. Which happen to be vulnerable to the impacts of both sea-level rise and, in particular, ever-more-powerful hurricanes like Harvey in 2017 and Dorian this year.

In the case of Hurricane Sandy, we even have evidence of just how much protection coastal wetlands can offer. A 2017 study by Scientific Reports found that coastal wetlands prevented $625 million worth of property damage, largely from flooding, during the superstorm.

So by restoring and expanding these ecosystems and others like them, we know we can help protect coastal homes from flooding, improve water quality, and fight the climate crisis.

Discover More Solutions

You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that we need to divest from fossil fuels and invest in solutions to the climate crisis.

But improving the ways we use the land on our breathtaking, beautiful planet is just the start.

And with more people waking up to this reality every day, we’re building a movement. One conversation at a time.

Are you ready to be part of that conversation?

It starts with learning the facts. And you can begin that journey by attending a 24 Hours of Reality: Truth in Action presentation.

This November 20-21, we’re holding a global conversation on the truth of the climate crisis and how we solve it. Click here to learn how you can join us.