Climate change is exacerbating the already high levels of stress human beings are putting on land and could undermine food security on the planet, one of the world’s leading authorities on land use and sustainable energy told a conference in Dublin.
Jim Skea, professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College, London, said that a global move to better land management would not only support climate actions it would also support biodiversity and ensure food security.
Prof Skea, the UK government’s nomination as the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, addressed the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual climate conference at Dublin Castle on Thursday. His address focused on land use and the part it plays in both the emissions scenario and the part it could play in finding solutions to ensure global temperatures do not go more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“Land is the basis for human livelihoods and wellbeing, and it does supply multiple other ecosystem services that support the production of food, fresh water, and also in the way new knowledge relates to biodiversity,” he said.
He told the conference that human use has directly affected more than 70 per cent of the (non-ice) surface on the planet, with 40 per cent used for pasture, 30 per cent for forestry, and about 10 per cent in crop land. While more modern agricultural benefits have been of benefit to humans, it has led to intensification of farming and food production methods.
Prof Skea identified four trends to illustrate this. He said that the use of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser had increased by a factor of nine since 1960; cereal crops had increased by a factor of three; the amount of water used for irrigation had also doubled: and there was a 50 per cent increase in the number of ruminant livestock on the planet.
He said that methane emissions, mainly from ruminant animals, would have to be reduced by about a third in the very near future if warming was going to be limited to the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
Professor Skeasaid that he was sympathetic to farmers’ concerns over some initiatives to combat climate change, saying that there was a “policy trick” to create positive incentives for farmers.
“The message I hear from farmers is they feel unfairly treated because they are characterised as part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” said Prof Skea. “We have managed to build and identify many positive aspects for these land interventions. Building up carbon content of soils will make the soil more productive, it will help you adapt to the physical impacts of climate change, and it takes carbon-dioxide out of the atmosphere. I do have sympathies for farmers in that all the interventions look like sticks, they don’t look like carrots.
“You need a plan that’s communicated to everybody, communicated very clearly so people understand their place in it and understand how to act as the transition works its way through.”
Also speaking at the conference, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan strongly rejected claims by most political parties that the new EU restoration laws would result in farms being flooded and people being forced off the lands. In an impassioned defence of the Regulation on Nature Restoration – which is going through the EU parliament at present – he said it would actually do the complete opposite of that.
“People are saying you are going to flood the land and force people out of farming. It’s the exact opposite, the exact opposite,” he said.
Mr Ryan argued that the new green way would enable family farms to operate profitably in the future, but in a sustainable way in which farmers would be paid premium for protecting the land. Allowing the water table to rise would be part of that new farming future, but would not result in any farmer being driven from the land.
Nicole Keoghan, a young farmer who also addressed the conference, echoed calls for better communication from Government. Ms Keoghan said that young farmers wanted to see changes implemented in the sector but that they should be included in the discussion.
She said that the biodiversity markers on her farm were increasing, leading to lower costs as she is using fewer fertilisers. However, she said that successive governments signed up to EU laws “without providing supports”.
Ms Keoghan criticised the media for pitting for production against the environment when “this cannot be the case”.
“I’m an advocate for farming and biodiversity,” said Ms Keoghan. “You can’t have one without the other. We need to stop pointing the finger at one another and instead come together and find the solution.”