Tech Vs. Trees: Indigenous Land Stewardship And Climate Change Mitigation

Global temperatures could rise by 1.5°C (2.7°F) as early as 2030 and hit 3°C (5.4°F) more by 2100 if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to increase at the current predicted trajectory. If the temperatures exceed even half a degree more than 1.5°C, hundreds of millions of people could be threatened by famine, disease, and displacement caused by rising sea levels, increased droughts and flooding.

Early last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report urgently calls for the transformation of the world’s economy and a transition from fossil fuels. Policymakers and governments are urged to make changes to the energy and transport systems, such as adopting renewable energy systems, investing in green technology, introducing carbon taxes, and ending fossil fuel subsidies. Conventional methods have primarily focused on reducing fossil fuel usage and developing technology to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, climate action requires a more holistic approach; IPCC urges, “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

To contain warming at 1.5°C, global net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to decrease by 45% by 2030 from 2010 and the “net zero” must be achieved by mid-century to avoid runaway climate change. If carbon neutrality is not reached, any excess emissions would require the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. At present, it is easier to enhance carbon sinks in natural ecosystems than it is to extract carbon via artificial methods. Land-based measures could be more effective, easily implemented, and more affordable than relying on costly tech solutions, such as bio-energy with carbon capture-and-storage, and geoengineering, which are both in the early stages of development and are currently untested.

Carbon extraction technologies are still being conceptualized and developed and are currently too expensive to be viable, especially for developing nations. In 2011 the estimated price of directly capturing CO2 from the air was between $600 and $1,000 per metric ton. Moreover, BECCS is land and resource intensive as it requires growing and burning vegetation to produce energy, which is then captured as CO2 and stored underground in geological formations. The amount of land required is three times the area of India in order to make BECCS viable under the Paris Agreement. The conversion of forests into timber plantations required for energy would put tracts of rainforest at risk of deforestation.

A more feasible option would be to introduce an international carbon tax which could fund the protection of forests. Forests have a higher potential for carbon mitigation than other methods due to the double advantage of avoiding the release of carbon, decreasing emissions by naturally capturing carbon and enhancing carbon sinks as forests grow. Deforestation for agriculture and other industries turns a natural carbon sink into a source of emissions. Governments have largely overlooked the role of forests in climate change mitigation. Scientists urge halting deforestation is “just as urgent” as eliminating the use of fossil fuels. The world’s forests contain more CO2 than global exploitable deposits of oil, coal and gas combined. For instance, the destruction of the world’s forests would emit more than 3 trillion tons of CO2, an amount greater than fossil reserves which could release 2.7 trillion tons. Forests are natural carbon sinks which sequester carbon. Land-based solutions will help to enhance carbon sinks. Vegetation currently absorbs one-quarter of the CO2 released into the atmosphere. If deforestation continues at an unprecedented rate, carbon sinks will rapidly begin to diminish and lose their ability to stabilize climate and rainfall, as well as support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain and improve the management of existing forests to enhance carbon sinks in natural ecosystems.

Emerging research emphasizes the critical importance of land-based climate solutions with forest conservation and land stewardship identified as integral in limiting warming to 1.5°C in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. In response to the IPCC findings, a report was recently released by the Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA): Missing Pathways to 1.5 degrees C: The role of the land sector in ambitious climate action. CLARA advocates for the establishment of secure land rights for indigenous people who act as forest stewards to help reduce deforestation. Moreover, the restoration of forest ecosystems which incorporates reforestation, rehabilitation of degraded land and sustainable community forestry. Other recommendations include the transformation of agriculture from large-scale, intensive farming to small-scale farms and community gardens, with less dependence on fertilizers. A global revolution in dietary habits, such as eating less meat and reducing food waste, will help facilitate sustainable agricultural systems, as well as reduce material consumption which will help promote sustainable land use and ensure food and resource security. Collectively, these methods would naturally sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

Forest management will largely be achievable through the recognition of community land rights. However, climate solutions have failed to recognize the role of stewardship and securing land and resource rights for indigenous people and local communities. They are principle stewards of some of the most bio-diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in the world. Up to 2.5 billion people make a living in rural economies through the stewardship of forests and community land, playing an essential role in preserving ecosystems. Securing community land rights also have the potential to alleviate poverty and food insecurity, as well as address gender inequality. Most governments disregard indigenous peoples’ legal claims to their land, which jeopardizes their ability to protect and manage it.

Worldwide indigenous and local communities manage land containing nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon – equivalent to over 30 times global energy emissions in 2017. If their rights are recognized, they can continue to protect these areas. It is proven that communities with secure land tenure tend to have lower rates of deforestation and forest carbon emissions, as well as conserving higher levels of biodiversity which produces more resilient environments. This is reiterated by Peter Veit, Director of the Land and Resource Rights (LRR) initiative at the World Resources Institute, who said, “economic analyses make it fairly clear that indigenous peoples’ lands that are titled and secured, especially in Latin America where the data is most abundant, have deforestation rates that are three to four times lower than similar lands not held by indigenous peoples. Having title to the land is critical.”

Sequestered carbon stored in collective forests of indigenous and local communities is equivalent to 33 years’ worth of global emissions, modelled on a 2017 baseline, according to a study by Rights and Resources International (RRI). The protection and sustainable management of forests and other lands are essential for achieving climate and development goals. Natural land-based solutions have the potential to contribute 37% of cost-effective CO2 mitigation by 2030 by removing excess carbon dioxide. To achieve this, the participation of indigenous and local communities is vital. However, they largely lack land tenure rights. Findings from a RRI study show that only 22% of the forest carbon in 52 tropical and subtropical countries is under community stewardship, and one-third of this community-managed carbon lies in forests where local people lack legal recognition of their tenure rights.

Although native communities tend to be better stewards of the land than external stakeholders, it is acknowledged that developing nations, plagued by government corruption, have difficulty balancing conservation and resource management due to the pressure to develop and monetize their natural resources. In addition, land-tenure conflicts result in violence and criminalization against environmental defenders; last year 207 environmental defenders in 22 countries were murdered fighting against illegal mining, logging, poaching, and drilling on their land. Furthermore, mitigation may be jeopardized by the election of far-right wing Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro who threatens to remove Brazil from the Paris agreement and open the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness and development.

Land rights and stewardship are vital in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Yet, emerging climate solutions have not recognized the rights of indigenous and local people, nor provided sufficient funding for the protection of their land. For example, less than 3% of climate mitigation funding is for forests. More funding and political will is vital to ensure indigenous and traditional communities reach their full potential as a climate change solution.

Jenna Homewood