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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Multilateralism on the Environment Rolls On, Regardless

Justin Adams

28 Jul 2018

28 July 2018

“Change is coming, from the ground up, and while there are challenges to multilateralism coming from many sides, the course is set.”

Justin Adams is the Global Managing Director for Lands at The Nature Conservancy, where he leads a broad team of Conservancy staff operating at the intersection of global development and environmental challenges, including sustainable agriculture, forests and climate change, smart infrastructure, and indigenous and communal conservation. Here he discusses this crucial period for harnessing the power of multilateralism across sectors to create lasting change.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Government officials met in Brussels last month to discuss how to deliver on the historic Paris climate agreement. Multilateralism may be slow and frustrating, but for most governments it is far from dead. They see that it is better to be in the conversation rather than out, even when some of them are poles apart from the consensus.

This is important because many of the environmental challenges we face cross national borders. In the latter part of the post-war consensus, we saw multilateralism succeed with the Montreal Protocol in 1987,a universal agreement to cut chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were damaging the ozone layer. We saw it with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, then with trade in endangered species and most triumphantly, in the landmark Paris climate agreement. There is however one area of environmental action where multilateralism has been less successful : the land sector.

Land is important because it is where we get most of our food from, and because it hosts abundant wildlife and biodiversity. But the millions of decisions we make at a local level about how we manage the land results in a huge carbon footprint. All told, the global land sector produces a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the road, rail, shipping and aviation sectors combined.

Unsurprisingly, the sector has occupied a good chunk of the UN climate talks in the last two decades. Experts have argued over the complexities of measuring how changes in land use – for example from a tropical forest to a palm oil plantation, or cropland to livestock farming – contribute to changes in greenhouse gas emissions. Monitoring mechanisms and assessment approaches are difficult to agree on, unlike other types of point pollution.

The result has been the principal risk of multilateralism – inertia. Today as we look at progress on land use, we see that the measures we know are effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as conservation agriculture, protection of wetlands and reforestation, are not being implemented on a large scale. No more than a quarter of governments who signed the Paris agreement have specific targets for the sector. Meanwhile land use receives just 3% of public funds to reduce greenhouse gases.

Those involved in these technical discussions are knowledgeable, committed and have shown a great deal of solidarity through the process. But the time is coming for governments around the world to show they are genuinely committed to the Parisclimate agreement. We need to move on from the microscopic details of measurement and accountability, to deliver large-scale action on the ground. Yes, we need commitments to electric transportationand the energy transition – and we need to accelerate these. But the land sector needs a transition too.

The opportunity is clear: If you add up all of the commitments made under Paris to date, there is still a shortfall of between 11 and 19 gigatons in carbon dioxide emissions equivalent per year. The science shows that we can deliver more than 10 gigatons of emissions reductions from the land sector every year. This will come from both reducing emissions from current practice—in particular stopping the clearing of tropical forests—but also from restoring land. Planting trees, restoring soil health and rebuilding our coastal wetlands could be a huge boost to our rural economies, reverse declines in biodiversity, improve water security in addition to removing billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. A societal bargain!

This is a crucial time. For many years NGOs and the development community have sent mixed messages to governments on land use. Most often they have focused exclusively on protecting tropical forests, and securing food production. That is why UNDP and a group of NGOs recently launched a new initiative called Nature4Climate to push for a comprehensive approach to the land sector that puts sustainable land practices at the heart of climate policy.

This initiative is important in particular because the partners have so much experience in solving the kind of challenges that have prevented the land sector from taking off on climate previously. In most parts of the world today, entrenched interests dictate the outcomes of these, and climate benefit is not considered. The partners know how to solve these challenges and to create solutions that work for different communities.

NGOs in the Brazilian state of Para for example have been helping cattle ranchers move into cocoa production, increasing their profits up to five times. Since cocoa trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow, there is also a carbon benefit. Meanwhile, in Australia, land owners are cutting carbon dioxide releases by lighting small fires early in the season that reduce the risk of much larger fires, in line with ancient Aboriginal practices. And in Canada, a carbon management program in Manitoba and Alberta aims to capture between 400,000 and 800,000 tons of carbon annually through better resource management, while generating economic benefits for indigenous communities.

Change is coming, from the ground up, and while there are challenges to multilateralism coming from many sides, the course is set. The land sector offers a new groundswell of opportunity to protect livelihoods and rural areas, and increase action on climate change. It is time for the politicians to listen and act.


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