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OPINION: Grasslands and savannas : the overlooked solution to climate crisis

by Joao Campari | WWF International
Tuesday, 20 August 2019 14:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Sisters walk together as they move a herd of goats on grasslands located around 200km (62 miles) south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator April 4, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Momentum is building for action to tackle the climate crisis – but we must ensure action is applied in all the needed places

Joao Campari is global food practice leader, WWF International.

We must change the way we use our land and we must do it now. That’s the overall message of the recently published IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Through deforestation, conversion and unsustainable agriculture we have increased emissions and reduced the carbon sequestering abilities of our lands. Business as usual makes it impossible to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and threatens our food security.

Food production takes up 34 per cent of all land on our planet, around half of all the habitable land, and is responsible for up to 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The fundamental element of better land management is a transformation of our food system. Although consumer actions and production solutions are discussed in the report, a glaring gap is the lack of attention paid to the ecosystems in which food is predominantly produced: grasslands and savannahs – areas without enough rainfall to support the growth of a forest, but enough that a desert does not form, and are thus dominated by grasses.

An estimated 60 per cent of all food is produced in grasslands and savannahs. We have already lost half of the planet’s grasslands and wildlife in the areas that remain is some of the most threatened on the planet. For example, some North American grassland songbird populations have declined by 90 per cent since the 1960s. However, the IPCC report fails to directly address the role that grasslands and savannahs play in climate change, limiting efforts to raise public, private and political focus on of dedicated solutions.

The urgency to act is not solely because grasslands store one fifth of the total carbon contained in terrestrial vegetation and topsoils worldwide, the release of which would accelerate global warming; it is also because they have huge potential to mitigate climate change. In a vulnerable, warming, drought-likely future, grasslands will store more carbon than forests because the carbon is fixed underground and is thus less impacted by droughts and wildfire. Yet we are failing to protect these areas. To use one example, just eight per cent of Brazil’s Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah, is legally protected – compared to 53 per cent of the Amazon. With Brazil´s main watersheds starting in the Cerrado, food production might also have severe implications for water security in cities, further raising the need for protection.

Millions of hectares of grasslands have already been converted globally, but there are ways in which they can be more optimally used and, where they have become fallow, restored for sustainable food production and wildlife habitat. Grasslands and savannahs are unique in that they can be used for food production, without conversion, ensuring food security while also limiting climate impacts and supporting biodiversity.

For instance, ranching livestock on native grasslands can mitigate emissions by naturally cycling nutrients, meaning reduced fertiliser application and increased carbon sequestering capabilities of the soil. Indeed, the future ability of grasslands to store more carbon than forests does not even account for this.

Farmers, ranchers and local pastoralists have a huge ability to ensure a sustainable future for grasslands and savannahs across the world; from the Great Plains in North America to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, and the Queensland rangelands in Australia. Governments, businesses and financers must work with these agents to scale traditional methods and enable innovation and adaptation. Governments must disincentivize farming methods which deplete soil quality and businesses must translate the growing intention to remove deforestation and conversion from their supply chains into reality (see the 120 companies who have signed the Cerrado Manifesto).

The IPCC report does discuss several food-related actions we can take to reduce emissions and improve carbon sequestration, including cutting food loss and waste, changing diets to focus on less resource-intensive foods, and restoring degraded lands. However, to transform the food system and solve the climate crisis, we must have dedicated solutions for different landscapes.  We need to elevate the profile of grasslands and savannahs, and ensure they sit as high on the conservation agenda as their more famous cousins the forests and oceans. Momentum is building for action to tackle the climate crisis – but we must ensure action is applied in all the needed places.