April 23, 2019 Insights

The Land-Use Solution to Climate Change

Jim Murphy

As another year passes with more shocking extreme weather-related disasters, the urgency of solving climate change collides with the reality that climate change is upon us and will get increasingly worse. From the horrors of the fires that raged in California in 2018 to the brute force of Hurricane Michael that caused catastrophic damage in the Florida Panhandle before sweeping northward, it is clear that Mother Nature’s fury is now super-fueled by a rapidly warming planet, and we are far from having the matter under control. While the Trump administration ludicrously blames tragedies like the deadly Camp Fire in northern California on a failure to thin forest growth and vigorously rake, scientists report that the unfettered wrath of a warmer world is closer and more perilous than we thought even a couple years ago.

Although the National Climate Assessment of our own governmental agencies and the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that were issued in fall 2018 may paint a dire picture of inevitable global climate upheaval, these reports also point to hope and opportunity, if we are wise enough to seize it. The challenge before us is harder than ever. It will require not only a Marshall Plan–like transformation of our energy sector, but also ways to remove carbon already in the atmosphere. Fortunately, while the latter may sound difficult, it is not impossible, and does not necessarily require heretofore unimagined technology. Rather, it requires more sustainable use of land. That promises not only to help stave off climate calamity by sequestering carbon, but also to reduce other forms of pollution and make our land, forests, farms, and water healthier and more resilient.

Let’s look at what the science tells us we must do if we are to keep our planet safe. The latest IPCC report makes clear that unless a rapid and unprecedented effort to decarbonize our economy is immediately and aggressively undertaken, we are almost certain to journey into the world of a dangerously unstable climate that will be with us for centuries, if not millennia. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5ºC (IPCC Report) (Oct. 2018), http://ipcc.ch/report/sr15/. Not only do we risk the extinction of many species and the collapse of ecosystems like coral reefs and the Arctic, but we invite calamitous, destructive, and often irreversible impacts to communities and economies including costly and deadly heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and sea-level rise. Human health will be greatly impacted, with millions more people facing potentially fatal events such as severe heat waves, harmful air pollution including ozone, and increases in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

The IPCC report finds that aggressive action to reduce carbon pollution is needed. It states that “[r]eaching and sustaining net-zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and declining net non-CO2 radiative forcing would halt anthropogenic global warming on multi-decadal timescales.” IPPC Report, supra, at A.2.2. The report also ups the ante by finding that the differences in impact between 1.5ºC (the aspirational goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement) and 2ºC (the agreed-upon goal) are “robust.” Id. at B.1. (It should be noted that current global emissions reduction commitments would only get to warming contained to over 3ºC.) These projected differences include higher mean temperatures in most regions, heavy precipitation in some areas and drought in others, and greater sea-level rise that could affect up to 10 million people and endanger small islands, deltas, and low-lying coastal areas.

The latest National Climate Assessment, issued by several federal agencies on November 23, 2018, paints a similarly grim picture. The assessment tells of more disease-bearing pests like ticks, flooding along our coastal communities and more superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, heat that could see losses of 570 million labor hours in places like the already hot Southeast, dropping crop yields in the nation’s breadbasket, toxic algal blooms in our drinking water supplies, more drought in the arid plains and Southwest, and more rain in the already soaked Pacific Northwest. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, https://nca2018.globalchange.gov (last visited Feb. 13, 2019).

The time frame to act is exceedingly short. In order to avoid overshooting 1.5ºC, the IPCC finds that net anthropogenic emissions must decline by 40 percent from 2010 levels in the next 12 years, reaching essentially net zero by 2050. Meeting this challenge will require transitions that, according the IPCC report, “are unprecedented in scale, but necessary in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors.” IPCC Report, supra, at C.2.

While the shift to a low carbon energy and transportation sector are key to keeping global warming in check, the importance of land use in reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in vegetation and soils is also critical. The net carbon dioxide removed from land use, land-use change, and forestry (assigned the rather painful acronym LULUCF) offsets about 11 percent of U.S emissions, but these reductions could grow to 30 to 50 percent by 2050. James Mulligan et al., Carbon Removal in Forests and Farms in the United States, World Resources Institute Working Paper (Sept. 2018), www.wri.org/publication/land-carbon-removal-usa.

The opportunities to reduce emissions and increase sequestration are plentiful. Various estimates put the carbon sequestration potential of agriculture at 60 to upwards of over 200 million metric tons of carbon per year. In short, healthy soils sequester and retain carbon. So, practices that build soil health, improve water retention in soils (which is important for a world where drought may be more common), reduce soil erosion, and decrease harmful runoff that can pollute waters also sequester carbon in soils. Such practices include the use of cover-crops (crops planted primarily for purposes other than yield such as soil health, erosion control, weed suppression, and the like) and intercropping (growing crops of another plant in between rows to increase diversity and improve soil health). Also beneficial are no-till practices (which leave soil intact, reducing erosion and improving soil health) and precision nutrient management (synchronizing nutrient supply with plant needs). With respect to livestock, practices that assist in building soil health and increasing water retention include mixed crop and animal farming (using different agricultural practices together, which increases biodiversity and soil health) and rotational grazing (periodically shifting livestock to different pastures to allow for the recovery of grazed areas).

Likewise, forests, which account for 90 percent of the country’s carbon sink, can sequester additional carbon through better forest management practices as well as reforestation and afforestation. Managing forests to better sequester carbon, as well as to reduce forest fires, which release about four to six percent of the country’s contribution to atmospheric carbon, could provide an enormous sequestration opportunity. Reforesting approximately 45 million acres of land in the United States could have the same carbon benefits as the proposed Obama era Clean Power Plan. Using better practices on existing forest land—such as choice of tree species (which can ensure long-term forest health and resiliency, especially as climate change shifts growth zones), timing of harvest (to protect new growth and reduce erosion and other harms to forest health), and managing pests and fires—also could increase sequestration. Other opportunities exist as well, such as returning mined lands to healthy forests that store, rather than emit, carbon. In total, it is estimated that 580 million tons of carbon (or the equivalent of the emissions from about 125 million passenger cars) could be sequestered each year in our forests through a combination of reforestation, better forest management, and improved fire management. See Mulligan et al., Carbon Removal in Forests and Farms, supra.

In addition to presenting hope for the planet, efforts at reducing emissions and increasing sequestration through land use present opportunities for lawyers. At the policy level, federal land management and national forest plans and land-use incentives could and should better account for carbon storage. This would have other benefits too––such as improved watershed health, making water quality compliance easier, and increased resilience to climate-related events. Incentive programs in the Farm Bill could be revised or included to better incentivize agricultural practices that store carbon and improve soil health. And carbon storage presents an economic opportunity as well, in voluntary carbon markets that are popping up in addition to markets that are or may be created as states and regions (and perhaps eventually the federal government) implement systems that place a price on carbon and a value on carbon storage.

The climate forecast is a stark one. But there is still hope for a vibrant sustainable, future. Changing the way that we use our land is a critical piece of turning that hope into reality.


Jim Murphy

Mr. Murphy is the director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. He may be reached at jmurphy@nwf.org.