Land reform opportunities must boost climate resilience – WWF

People’s relationship with the land is front and centre in South Africa, and when debating the issue locally, the additional stress that climate change places on land – increasing degradation, biodiversity loss, and food insecurity – cannot be ignored.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, was recently released and explores the relationship between climate, people and land in a warming world. The report emphasises that a huge transformation in how land is used is required.

“The way we currently use land is contributing to climate change, while also undermining its ability to support people and nature. Priorities include protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and moving to sustainable food production and consumption,” says Dr Stephen Cornelius, chief advisor on climate change and IPCC lead for WWF.

“This report comes at a time when South Africa is at a cross roads of reviving the economy and managing the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and high unemployment in a changing climate. It confirms that South Africa’s successful turn-around will depend on how we use the opportunity provided by land reform to increase climate resilience while providing a range of ecosystem services to local communities while contributing positively to sustainable development and other societal goals,” says Mkhululi Silandela, Senior Manager Sustainable Agriculture with WWF-SA.

A tall order indeed.

But “early action to address the climate crisis has the potential to provide multiple co-benefits across the whole range of land challenges, with many options contributing positively to sustainable development and other societal goals,” adds Cornelius.

“Delayed action will increase the risk of climate change impacts on food security. Those most at risk are the world’s poorest,” he reiterates.

The report states that humans use about 72% of the global ice-free land surface, with land-use contributing around 23% of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. This is primarily through deforestation, habitat conversion for agriculture, and livestock emissions. The removal of forests, conversion of peatlands and other natural ecosystems releases carbon and contributes to major biodiversity loss and land degradation.


Rethink that burger, because it cannot be denied that many meat-loving South Africans need to make serious changes to their diets.

The food sector alone is said to be responsible for 75% of deforestation worldwide, with the greatest pressure on forests taking place in the tropics. It is also a major driver of savannah and grassland conversion, says the report.

However, “land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

Coordinated action to address climate change can simultaneously improve land, food security and nutrition, and help to end hunger says the IPCC. The report highlights that climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilisation (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability).

“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines, increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions,” says Priyadarshi Shukla, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.

“We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he says.

The report records that about one-third of food produced is lost or wasted. Causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries, as well as between regions. Reducing this loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security.

“Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others,” says Debra Roberts (our proudly South African representative on the panel!), Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change,” she says.

The report finds there are ways to manage risks and reduce vulnerabilities in land and the food system.

Risk management can enhance communities’ resilience to extreme events, which has an impact on food systems. This can be the result of dietary changes or ensuring a variety of crops to prevent further land degradation and increase resilience to extreme or varying weather.

Reducing inequalities, improving incomes, and ensuring equitable access to food so that some regions (where land cannot provide adequate food) are not disadvantaged, are other ways to adapt to the negative effects of climate change. There are also methods to manage and share risks, some of which are already available, such as early warning systems.

An overall focus on sustainability coupled with early action offers the best chances to tackle climate change. This would entail low population growth and reduced inequalities, improved nutrition and lower food waste, says the IPCC.

The science presented in the report further underlines that climate, people and nature are fundamentally linked. Efforts to mitigate climate change and halt nature loss must go hand in hand, and be fully integrated with climate adaptation and food security considerations.

Additional reading:

  • The IPCC report can be downloaded here.
  • Case Studies on tackling food waste from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development can be found here.
  • 5 tips for eating healthier for nature, for you, from WWF can be found here.
IPCC Climate Change and Land Report.

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