Humans are reducing land’s ability to sustain us

  Last updated August 12, 2019 at 4:01 pm


A new report reinforces how serious climate change is, with the degradation of the Earth only being intensified by human activities.

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Human activities are only worsening land degradation which is already impacted by climate change. Credit: Christian Aslund / EyeEm

Climate change has already degraded Earth’s land, and the situation can only worsen if serious and rapid action is not taken to curb global warming, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Degradation of Earth’s land caused by climate change is also being exacerbated by human activities, according to the report, Climate Change and Land.

Land degradation increases the impact of climate change

It warns that our land has already warmed by 1.5°C since pre-industrial times (while global warming overall is at 0.87°C), and the increases in agricultural production required to meet the needs of the burgeoning human population will only degrade land further and faster.

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The increasing demand on agricultural production is only degrading land further. Credit: 4loops/Getty Images

Author on the report, Annette Cowie, from the Climate Branch of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says the degradation of land means that it becomes less productive and increases the impact of climate change.

“Land and Climate are interdependent: climate change exacerbates land degradation and diminishes carbon uptake by the land. Land degradation also reduces the resilience of human and natural systems to cope with climate change,” she told the AusSMC.

The report says we already use 70 per cent of our ice-free land, contributing over a fifth of our total greenhouse gas emissions. But as land availability becomes scarcer, food security is threatened at four levels: availability, access, utilisation, and stability, according to the report.

However, Mark Stafford, from the Steering Committee for Future Earth Australia, says that these daunting impacts can be minimised with some relatively minor changes.

“It [the report] highlights many places where quite modest actions could dramatically reduce the pressure on the land, whether in reducing food waste, shifting diets a little, better supporting our farmers to manage their land well, or avoiding water losses.”

Dietary choices can impact the environment

The report highlights how our dietary choices can impact the environment. For example, a move to more balanced diets consisting mainly of plant-based foods would reduce our impact significantly.

Minimising food waste is another area which could have a big impact without being a huge inconvenience in our everyday lives, according to the report. Currently, one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted, and minimising waste would free up land for reforestation and improving food security.

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70 per cent of our ice-free lands are already being used. Credit: Ulet Ifansasti / Stringer

It stresses that feeding the world without the need to use additional land is possible, and that land also has the capacity to provide biomass for renewable energy.

Altering our land management strategies would allow us to tackle the problems of food security, food waste, climate change, and land degradation all at once, the authors say.

“The land takes up about a third of emissions from the use of fossil fuels,” says Cowie.

“And it can do more: when we plant trees and use sustainable land management practices that increase soil organic matter, we take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the land…this improves productivity of the land and it’s resilience to climate change.”

Better land management is a win-win situation

Mark Howden, from the ANU Climate Change Institute and an author on the report agrees that altering land management practices would have multiple benefits.

“Better land management not only delivers win-wins for farmers, communities, governments and biodiversity but also helps address climate change,” he says.

Although the focus of the report is on land management, it sends a stark warning that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions needs to be a concerted effort from all sectors.

Cowie says that “we urgently need a coordinated approach that reduces emissions in every sector”

And it is action that needs to happen now, she adds.

“The longer we wait, the more land becomes degraded, the more carbon we put in the atmosphere, the harder it will be to meet the goal to limit global warming to less than two degrees, and to maintain the health of the land.”


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About the Author

Cale Matthews

Published By

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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