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Climate Change

Looking Beyond Fossil Fuels To Reduce Emissions

In 2017 Sri Lanka was hit by the worst drought in 40 years. It forced thousands in Sri Lankans to abandon their livelihoods and seek work in cities. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 6 2018 (IPS) - In midst of the 24th United Nations climate change conference (COP24), many are trying to double down in the search for practical, actionable solutions to the climate crisis: land itself.

Ahead of the ongoing COP24, the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) launched a report warning that the international community’s pledges under the Paris agreement, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are insufficient to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, thus, ambition gap has already lead to the current impacts of climate change that can be seen around the world and will continue to see for decades to come, World Resources Institute’s (WRI) global climate senior associate and one of the lead authors of UNEP’s report Kelly Levin told IPS.

“The ambition of current country commitments is not in line with the spirit of the Paris Agreement. If we continue to do what we are doing right now, we are going to see over 3 degrees Celsius warming,” she said.

“The urgency and need to act has has never been higher,” Levin added.

Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Chief Natural Resource Economist and one of the report’s contributing authors Ruben Lubowski echoed similar sentiments to IPS, stating: “We are nowhere near where we need to be, and we need to do better both in terms of getting the NDCs on track and then ratcheting them up over time to go beyond that.”

UNEP’s annual ‘Emissions Gap Report’ found that governments must triple their efforts as emissions must be reduced by a quarter by 2030 to keep warming no more than 2 degrees Celsius and would have to be halved to read the 1.5 degree Celsius target.

Not only is there a gap, but the report also found that there was a rise in emissions in 2017 unlike recent years.

While much of the attention remains on the need to reduce fossil fuel use, land restoration and reforestation are often neglected as solutions to the crisis.

“I think that there is an underrecognition of how important the land sector in particular is right now…it is one of the most immediately available opportunities and relatively least cost,” Lubowski said.

According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the land-use sector represents between 25 to 30 percent of total global emissions.

Tropical deforestation alone accounts for 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If it were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest emitter.

Though land-use change emissions have remained relatively flat, action targeting the sector is “low-hanging fruit” that can close the emissions gap by up to 30 percent, Lubowski noted.

“Reducing deforestation has already proven to be the most viable large-scale solution. What’s needed I think is to go beyond these just sticks and try to introduce some carrots in terms of some positive incentives…And we haven’t even come close to exhausting that opportunity,” he added.

Moving Around The Money

Fiscal policy reform is among the most effective tools to create incentives for low-carbon investments and reduce GHG emissions.

“Both the traditional fiscal policies as well as creating these carbon markets and emissions trading programs have really a big part to play in land-use, particularly tropical deforestation,” Lubowski told IPS.

He pointed to ecological fiscal transfer as one such policy as it allows local governments to receive tax revenue and resources based on their performance on conservation.

The inclusion of conservation indices as part of decisions around fiscal allocation provides incentives for local municipalities to protect land and forests as well as resources to expand such protections.

Without resources, local governments may be forced to allocate land to agriculture, industry, and construction in order to generate revenue.

Only a few countries have implemented the policy with Brazil being the first to take advantage of the opportunity with its ICMS-E programme.

This has lead to a 165 percent increase in the extent of conservation area between 1992 and 2000—equivalent to an increase of more than one million hectares of protected areas.

For instance, Parana, a southern Brazilian state, devoted five percent of the municipal tax share towards the protection of biodiversity conservation areas and watershed areas and has since expanded its protected areas.

Brazil’s efforts in curbing deforestation as a whole led to the decrease of almost 30 percent of GHG emissions.

However, there are now concerns that the newly elected Jair Bolsonaro will reverse the country’s trends after advocating for the reduction in conservation areas, increase in mining in the Amazon, and even the abolishment of the Ministry of Environment.

Neighbouring Colombia has taken a slightly different approach to that of Brazil by implementing a tax for every ton of CO2 a company is responsible for emitting.

Revenue from the tax are allocated towards land preservation and sustainable development in rural communities.

The fiscal policy also provides an incentive for companies as they can be exempt from paying a carbon tax if they become carbon-neutral or engage in offsetting activities such as environmental projects.

A similar carbon offsetting and reduction approach is also being designed by the aviation industry which is could be responsible for approximately five percent of global GHG emissions by 2050.

The Future is Trees

Since the land sector make up approximately 20-25 percent of NDCs, it is increasingly important to implement policies towards restoration and conservation, Lubowski noted.
However, both Levin and Lubowski noted that this will not be enough to reduce the emissions gap and reverse trends.

“We need action in every sector. We need to step away from fossil fuel energy sources and move towards clean energy sources, we need to stop deforestation and restore our lands, we need to curb emissions from agriculture, we need to address transportation and have zero energy cities,” Levin told IPS.

According to the UNEP report, if all fossil fuel subsidies alone were phased out, it would lead to a 10 percent reduction of emissions by 2030.

“We know what the ingredients are for success, we know how to do this. It’s not going to cost a lot and it will actually bring significant [benefits]… it’s just a question of getting down to it,” Levin added.

“I am definitely worried about where we are, especially if we are thinking about 1.5, the land sector becomes even more important in terms of not only reducing emissions which is essential but also going negative,” Lubowski said.

He urged for more international cooperation in reducing emissions and greater focus on forestry as a way to ramp up ambition in a cost-effective way.

Levin highlighted the need for countries to scale up their commitments by 2020 and COP to step up.

“[COP] will be a really important moment to reaffirm the process for countries…it’s the first test of the spirit of the Paris Agreement and it needs to send a really clear message of enhancing ambition,” she said.

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