Land Management and Climate Change

Aug 8, 2019

We’ve heard a lot about climate change – greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – and about how our oceans are getting warmer and more acidic.  Now comes a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looking at how we use land.  It’s a complex subject, but at the University of Virginia one professor is breaking it down.

The IPCC says using land to raise cattle for meat and milk produces greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.
Credit RadioIQ

For years, experts have been warning that we have to stop burning natural gas, coal, gasoline and other oil-based fuels if we want to slow the warming of our planet and prevent disaster, but there’s something else we can do according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental studies at UVA, has reviewed that document and says people control nearly 75% of all the land on earth.

“It turns out that the land is about 22% of global emissions,” she says. 

That’s because trees store carbon, but we cut them down. So every time we cut them the carbon stored in those trees goes into the atmosphere. And we use land to grow crops and raise cattle.

“So we use fertilizers which produce greenhouses gases," Lawrence explains. "We manage livestock, and we grow rice, and they also produce greenhouse gases – methane in particular.  Fertilizer produces nitrous oxide.  These are two other greenhouse gases that are less well known but very significant contributors to global warming."

That’s why it’s important for farmers to practice precision agriculture.

“Instead of dumping extra fertilizer onto an acre of corn, you can drop fertilizer right next to the growing corn -- right where it’s needed," she says.  " If it’s not applied in excess, you don’t need as much.  It doesn’t run off into our rivers.  It doesn’t pollute our bays. It doesn’t create greenhouse gases that go up into the atmosphere and warm the planet.” 

And we, as consumers of farm products, can also play a role.

“If we have healthier, more plant-based diets, it puts less strain on the agriculture that we currently have, and it’s less strain on the forest. It’s saying you don’t have to grow more cattle.  Let’s eat a little bit less beef.”

Some people might be waiting for science to solve the problem of greenhouse gases, but Lawrence says things being studied are unproven and small scale.  Fortunately, she adds, nature has given us another option – the process by which plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

UVA Professor of Environmental Studies Deborah Lawrence says preserving forests and planting more trees could help save the planet.
Credit UVA

“There are a lot of exciting technologies out there that are being investigated, but the fact is photosynthesis works great, so conserving forests is one of the best ways we can keep pulling atmospheric CO2 down.  In fact, forests and land already take about 30% of all the stuff we put up.”

And planting trees is something we can all do as individuals and countries.

“Just the other day Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in 12 hours.  The entire country took off from work and took off from school and they all went out and planted trees. + If they can do it, I think we can do it.”

If we don’t take action now, she adds, we are in for many more long, hot – even deadly summers.

“I mean we’ve already seen in the past few years many extreme heat events.  We’ll have more of those.  They will be widespread.  Millions of people will be at risk for heat stroke, heart conditions and asthma attacks. The warmer it gets, the harder it is to produce enough food for everybody, to have enough water, not only to provide for agriculture, but also for personal consumption and industrial consumption.  Everything gets harder when it gets warmer.”

On the other hand, by eating less meat and fewer dairy products, cutting fewer trees and planting  new ones, Lawrence says, we can make a small contribution in the battle against climate change and signal to our elected officials  that this is what we want. 

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