Our ancestors came to Canada in 1850 and settled near here on a 100 acre farm. They spent most of their time with what they called “the chopping”, clearing away the extensive virgin forest that used to be the habitat here. They would pile the logs together and burn them. That timber would be worth a fortune today, but they considered it worth less than nothing. An observer at the time commented that a pioneer views a tree as the enemy. The sole trace of a tree left standing is a small apple orchard that they planted as part of their subsistence farming.
This was an example of land use in colonial times. Land use is an issue in today’s world as well. We mentioned in an earlier post that it’s one of the main causes of the mass extinction we are facing. We were reminded of that this last week when the UN issued another report on climate change. Issued by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), this one is called Climate Change and Land.
The report finds that land is already under growing human pressure and that climate change is adding to the problem. Like all IPCC reports, Climate Change and Land is jointly written. It includes 107 expert contributors from 52 countries. What’s new for this report is that 53% of the authors are from developing countries. As well, 40% of the coordinating lead authors are women.
The IPCC had two reasons for dedicating a report to land use. One is that agriculture, forestry and other forms of land use make up 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. The other is that natural land processes absorb about one third of the world’s C02 emissions from industry and fossil fuels. Having so much influence on both sides of the equation, land use deserves its own topic.
They have found that better land management can help tackle climate change, but it’s not a full solution. We can’t abruptly stop using land altogether to save the environment. We need land to offer food security for a growing global population. Also, trees and soils take time to absorb and store carbon effectively, which means they can’t save the world for us.
The main concerns are desertification and land degradation. These are the main risks to food security. The report points to actions we can take that fight desertification that also have side benefits. They reduce the effects of climate change, reverse diversity loss and lead cultures toward sustainable development. We can improve the soil’s fertility, get plants and soils to absorb more carbon and make farms more productive. What is now a vicious cycle can be turned around. We would then have synergy in a positive direction.
One of the report’s coordinating co-authors is Professor Margot Hulbert of the University of Regina. She spoke to CBC News about land use strategies that can either reduce or mitigate climate change. One of these was agroforestry, which involves farming within forests. Instead of viewing trees as the enemy, like our ancestors, farmers would work underneath a forest canopy or grow vegetables in among fruit trees. Canadian farmers already do this on a smaller scale when they plant rows of trees as windbreaks.
Another idea is called biochar. Burning certain kinds of plant matter produces a special kind of charcoal that woks as fertilizer and may help us to store carbon in the ground. A strategy that we Canadians should note is using wood products. We do most of our construction with lumber. That’s a good thing. Lumber keeps absorbing carbon even when it’s now a rafter or a floor joist. Other countries need to follow our lead. We also need to use more forest products for building materials and less for paper.
We also don’t need to try to force every square inch of farmland into production. Our old farm had a pond where we liked to skate. We also planted a plot of land with trees. We didn’t realize we were doing carbon sequestration. Another strategy is to check the sources of products we buy to make sure they are produced sustainably. We can watch for certifications, and we can pressure our governments to include sustainable practices in trade deals
These ideas won’t be easy to do. They will need a new level of coordination within and between today’s societies. As always, there needs to be a will to work together and get it done. We haven’t seen a lot of that in recent years, specifically from the United States.
The fundamental principle of ecology is that no organism is isolated. Every living creature is interdependent with dozens of others. Everything is part of a boundless web of life that encompasses our planet. Humanity is part of a biosphere that has a life of its own. We tend to forget that, and we are paying for our negligence. We need to learn new ways to manage the land.
There is always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Climate Change and Land
5 ideas to fight climate change through better land use