Why land is the next frontier in environmental breakdown

Life on Earth is finely tuned and delicately interconnected: damage to one area has consequences elsewhere.

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There’s no better place to look for certainty of environmental breakdown than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC’s warnings of climate catastrophe have become a kind of gospel for the end times, presenting the latest evidence as a guide to everything that has gone wrong with anthropogenic climate breakdown. Their most recent report about climate change and land, published earlier this week, is particularly important – and can help us understand three important truths.

First, halting environmental breakdown doesn’t just mean getting rid of coal power plants and dirty vehicles. How we use land is as important to reducing emissions as how we produce and use energy. Land covered in luscious rainforest or coastal mangroves is particularly good at pulling CO2 back from the atmosphere, acting like a great pair of lungs spread out across the world. By deforesting that land, we’re robbed of these lungs, meaning more emissions remain in the atmosphere – which in turn exacerbates climate breakdown. 

If land is used for cattle farming and factories, the damage is twofold. Flatulent cows and dirty factories emit CO2 and methane, while reducing the spread of trees hinders the planet’s ability to absorb these emissions. In total, the IPCC finds that land use contributes to about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Humans use nearly 75 per cent of the world’s land. Deforestation and intensive farming not only contribute to climate breakdown, but deplete the soil beneath our feet and drive species extinction.

The soil problem is particularly worrying. In areas that are ploughed for farming, soil is being lost over 100 times faster than it can be replenished – and, astonishingly, around 10-20 times faster than can be replenished by natural processes in areas where it’s not even being farmed. Humans are entirely dependent on soil to grow food. And soil also absorbs CO2, so depletion speeds up climate breakdown. Life on Earth is finely tuned and delicately interconnected: damage to one area has consequences elsewhere.

Thirdly, agri-businesses, pesticides companies and the other corporate behemoths that command the global food system have shown an obtuse attitude towards this crisis. Unsustainable food production are key drivers of environmental breakdown. By stripping forests to make space for things like soy and palm oil production and cattle grazing, and making liberal use of damaging fertilisers, the global food industry has depleted the precious ecosystems on which the world depends. Meat production is well known to be one of the worst culprits. But one of the greatest costs of unsustainable food production is missed opportunitities: land could have been used to grow forests or more sustainable crops that help suck up CO2, replenish soil and provide a habitat to wildlife.

The IPCC’s findings will be unsurprising to those on the frontline of environmental breakdown, including indigenous peoples forced off ancestral lands to make space for agri-businesses, and scientists who have long warned that we ignore unsustainable land use at our peril. For many, though, their findings capture a new, alarming frontier in our age of environmental breakdown. As the story of land shows, the current economic system favours short-term corporate interests over planetary sustainability. 

It was once said that “civilization itself rests upon the soil.” Using and abusing land drives environmental breakdown. We can choose to instead move towards using land in ways that repair destruction, and realise the enormous health benefits of more sustainable diets. Yet our leaders instead look set to usher in a future of catastrophe. 

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is co-author of a forthcoming book about environmental breakdown, published by Verso. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.