Tapping the land for climate solutions

Oct 03, 2022
Tapping the land for climate solutions
Workshop explores sustainable, equitable pathways to transform agriculture, forestry and other land uses into net carbon sinks

To achieve a stable climate will require rapid, dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. This can be done by transitioning energy generation from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, and by removing those gases—primarily carbon dioxide (CO2)— from the atmosphere. The latter approach relies on the development of technologies that capture the gas from the air and store it underground, and the cultivation of “nature-based solutions” that increase ground-level absorption of airborne CO2.

To draw down enough carbon dioxide to make a significant contribution to global efforts to combat climate change, such nature-based solutions will require a massive deployment of agriculture, forestry and other land-use (AFOLU) practices. At the same time, these solutions must be sustainable, minimizing the risk of unintended and unequally distributed negative consequences.

To help advance AFOLU best practices, the Foresight and Metrics Research Initiative of the CGIAR, MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School convened a workshop “Pathways for Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (PAFOLU) in Support of Sustainable Development, Equitable Solutions and a Stable Climate” at Oxford University and on Zoom on September 14-15.

During the workshop, experts from these and other institutions—and interested stakeholders from industry, government and the non-profit sector—worked together to identify top priorities/action items in this space. While addressing global issues in climate, sustainability, mitigation and AFOLU-based solutions, the workshop focused on their application to a single continent that’s expected to experience rapid development and population growth in coming decades: Africa.

The main takeaway from the workshop is a set of potential research ideas aimed at: identifying pathways that shift the AFOLU sector from emissions source to emissions sink; ensuring that such pathways account for physical and economic climate risks; and advancing institutional frameworks to finance actions aligned with these pathways.  

Foresights into worlds at or below 2˚C warming

The overarching goal of COP26, the most recent international climate conference, was to mobilize the world to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a target viewed as necessary to keep global warming from exceeding two degrees Celsius and thus limit climate impacts. Because some economic sectors will be difficult to fully decarbonize by that time, others will need to achieve net-negative emissions—extracting more greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere than they produce. According to the conference organizers, if all other sectors reduce emissions by 90% by 2050, AFOLU must shift from today’s positive 21% of 2018 emissions to about -8% of 2018 emissions by 2050 to reach the net-zero goal. Developing countries, which account for the vast majority of global AFOLU emissions, could play a significant role in capturing and sequestering CO2. This session sought to identify a set of potential research ideas to help pinpoint AFOLU-sector pathways to net-negative emissions by 2050, particularly in Africa. Those emerging from this session included:

  • A case study in Kenya involving the MIT Joint Program, IFPRI and AERC (African Economic Research Consortium)
  • A case study for a multi-nation transboundary river basin in Africa involving the same collaborators

Confronting physical and transition risks

In order to help move net AFOLU emissions from the plus to the minus column, developing countries in Africa and elsewhere will need to simultaneously address two kinds of climate risk: physical risk (damage to natural and managed resources resulting from climate change-amplified weather) and transition risk (financial losses resulting from the transition to a clean energy economy). Sustainable, equitable pathways to net-negative AFOLU emissions must therefore recognize the need for resilient physical and economic systems that can withstand such risks. This session sought to identify a set of potential research ideas that “facilitate the efficient consideration of risk/uncertainty in development policy and planning.” Those emerging from this session included:

  • A vulnerability project led by the Oxford Martin School (and including the Joint Program) focused on extreme events and climate variability
  • A biodiversity resilience project that brings together the complementary strengths of the Oxford Smith School; the MIT Joint Program; IFPRI and the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land Use and Energy (FABLE) Consortium

Three collaborators cited above—MIT, IFPRI and the Oxford Martin School—are members of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance, which seeks to “drive innovation and inform better decision making for resilient and sustainable food systems.”

Financing sustainable development

While nations and corporations increasingly aim to invest in initiatives designed to accelerate progress toward the global net-zero emissions goal—including the mobilization of AFOLU sector best practices—institutional frameworks to facilitate such investment are sorely lacking. Is it possible to form a coalition of recipient countries, financing entities and NGOs that can develop such institutional frameworks while also contributing to developmental and other environmental goals? This session sought to identify a set of potential research ideas aimed at addressing institutional deficiencies in climate financing, with a focus on developing countries where the need is greatest. Those emerging from this session included:

  • A project focused on financial risks and how central banks in Africa can work toward addressing them, involving the Oxford Martin School, the Joint Program and IFPRI

Next steps

To identify research ideas with the potential to help move AFOLU emissions from net positive to net negative by 2050, particularly in developing countries, the workshop’s first three sessions posed the following questions: What are potential feasible pathways to achieving shared objectives? Which, if any, of these pathways are robust? What institutional frameworks are required for success? This session engaged the collective wisdom of workshop participants to fine-tune and, where possible, synthesize the proposed research ideas.

Potential next steps emerging from the conference included:

  • Engaging with ARUA, AERC and MEFMI on capacity building within countries and communities to enable individuals and teams to produce their own results with the tools  developed by this workshop’s participating organizations
  • Pursuing research and analysis that frames where mitigation efforts will be most impactful
  • Exploring how to value adaptation effectively (in terms of avoided risk) against carbon mitigation costs—accounting for land-use change vs. labor-use change
  • Incorporating poverty reduction and equity—along with sustainability—in scenario development
  • Advancing the state-of-the-art in quantifying physical and transition risks
  • Improving collection of environmental and historical data, especially from local sources, to inform our understanding/modeling of feasible policy options and likely outcomes (in terms of food security, livelihoods and poverty alleviation) in particular contexts
  • Providing more rigorous accounting of climate extremes and their associated physical risks, particularly at the local scale
  • Obtaining economic, social and biophysical data from multi-stakeholder, living laboratories developed by CGIAR

Image © Antoine Beyeler | Dreamstime

For more information, contact C. Adam Schlosser at casch@mit.edu.

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