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The Great Balancing Act

Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment One

How can the world adequately feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that advances economic development and reduces pressure on the environment? This is one of the paramount questions the world faces over the next four decades. “The Great Balancing Act” seeks to start answering this...

Food and Fuel: 2 Grand Challenges Facing Us this Earth Day

Since the very first Earth Day more than four decades ago, the environmental movement has tackled a wide range of problems, including air pollution, contaminated water, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and more. But this Earth Day, I propose that there are two fundamental issues the movement must address over the coming decade if it is ever to defuse the tension between development and the environment. In fact, these two issues underlie many, if not most, of the world’s environmental challenges.

I’m referring here to the human quest for food and the human quest for fuel.

Unsustainable Food Production

Food production has significant―but often underestimated―impacts on the environment. Take climate, for instance: About one-quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are agriculture-related. In particular, nearly 13 percent of global emissions comes from livestock, fertilizer use, and farm-related energy consumption, while another 11 percent results from the clearing of forests and other ecosystems, primarily for agriculture.

Without Land, What Would a Farmer Do?

Rural farmers depend on land and natural resources for food, income, and their physical well-being. But what happens when national or local governments prevent rural people and communities from farming their land?

All governments have the authority to restrict the use of private land, usually for public interest purposes, such as environmental management or biodiversity conservation. In these cases, the affected individuals should be compensated for their losses even though the land remains theirs. Problems arise when governments routinely restrict the use of private property for ordinary government business or for meeting short-term political ends. With weak rights to their property and insecure tenure arrangements, local people stop investing in their land and natural resources. In many countries, governments restrict the use of private property without consulting the landholders or providing compensation. With courts too expensive to access, poor people have few opportunities for recourse.

A New Tool to Measure and Reduce Emissions from Agriculture

Agriculture is a major actor in spurring global climate change. The sector is already responsible for at least 10-12 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and agricultural emissions are expected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2030.

Mitigating agricultural emissions, then, could go a long way toward mitigating global climate change. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol is currently developing an Agricultural Guidance to help companies measure and reduce their agricultural emissions. We’ve just released a second draft of the Guidance for open comment period, which will run until May 31, 2013.

Key Challenges to Measuring Agricultural Emissions

Reporting agricultural emissions in GHG inventories is a decidedly complex endeavor, which can hinder reduction efforts. For example, agricultural emissions are strongly affected by weather and are therefore often calculated with a large amount of uncertainty. This ambiguity makes it challenging to set and track progress toward reduction targets. The carbon stored in biomass and soils can often be emitted into the atmosphere, making it imperative that companies do not over- or under-count the impact of farming practices on stored carbon. And companies vary widely in how they control different parts of agricultural supply chains—such as commodity production, processing, and retail —so it’s difficult to maintain consistency in how inventories are reported.

Embracing Ecological Progress in China

This post originally appeared on ChinaDaily.com.

Over the past two decades, the world has witnessed a remarkable period of economic and human development: More than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water; life expectancy has increased by approximately five years; more children are going to school, with 90 percent enrolled in primary education; and per capita income levels have doubled across developing countries.

China has experienced an even more profound transformation during this period. The country has sustained an annual GDP growth of around 10 percent. Five hundred million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. People's lives have visibly improved and there are more opportunities for them.

Yet, many challenges remain. With the world's expanding population, rapid economic growth, and booming middle class, the pressure on natural resources is mounting. The truth is the world is on an unsustainable path.

China is part of this problem, but it also must be part of the solution. China faces real challenges when it comes to the environment and natural resources. Demand for water is rapidly outpacing supply, with food, energy, and domestic use intensifying for this scarce resource. The need for affordable and clean energy is on the rise. China's rapidly expanding urban population is having a significant impact on transportation, energy, and water infrastructure.

4 Grand Challenges to Energy, Food, and Water

The world is on track to become a very different place in the next two decades. Per capita income levels are rising, the global middle class is expanding, and the population is set to hit 8.3 billion people by 2030. At the same time, urbanization is happening at an accelerated pace—the volume of urban construction over the next 40 years could equal that which has occurred throughout history to date.

While these projections would bring benefits like reduced poverty and individual empowerment, they have serious implications for the world’s natural resources. Global growth will likely increase the demand for food, water, and energy by 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively by 2030. Add continued climate change to the equation, and the struggle for resources only becomes more intense.

These are just a few of the estimates included in the new Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) that was released last month. The assessment, which the NIC puts out every four years, reflects in-depth research on trends and geopolitical changes that may unfold in the next 15-20 years—everything from urbanization to conflict to resource scarcity.

Assessments like the NIC’s are invaluable in providing decision makers with forward-looking insights and analysis. But while the report offers a glimpse into the future, what’s more important is how we respond today to the questions these “megatrends” raise.

The False Choice Between Palm Oil and Indonesian Forests

This post originally appeared in the Jakarta Post.

Palm oil is on a lot of people’s minds. In Indonesia, the industry is booming, with $19.7 billion of crude palm oil exports in 2011. But expanding oil palm plantations have taken their toll on remaining forests and other natural habitats in tropical regions and led to conflict over land with local people.

The world’s top scientists are also raising concerns. According to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, from 1990 to 2010, 90 percent of lands converted to oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were forested.

There need not, however, be a trade-off between palm oil, forests, and communities. It is possible to grow more crops--including oil palm--while keeping forests and cutting rural poverty.

2 New Tools Can Cut Deforestation and Support Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia

Can the world have its palm oil and forests, too? This is an issue that my colleague and I discussed a while back. I am pleased to say that we recently moved a step toward ensuring that the answer is “yes.”

At the 10th Annual Meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), WRI launched two new online mapping applications designed to help the palm oil industry grow while avoiding deforestation. These free tools enable palm oil producers, buyers, investors, and government agencies to easily identify and evaluate locations in Indonesia where they can develop plantations on already-degraded land rather than on currently forested areas. By siting oil palm plantations on degraded or “low-carbon” lands, developers can avoid the need to clear remaining natural forests to meet the growing global demand for palm oil.

Forthcoming World Resources Report Will Focus on Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture

Today is World Food Day, a chance for people all over the world to focus on approaches to end global hunger. Celebrated each year to commemorate the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this day provides us with an opportunity to assess where the world is today in regard to food security – and what we’ll all have to do in the future to achieve it.

How Do You Feed 9 Billion People by 2050?

For much of the planet, food security isn’t a concern on just one day of the year—it’s a daily struggle. According to the FAO, 870 million of the world’s poor are already undernourished, and yet global human population is projected to increase from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. To sufficiently feed these people, worldwide food availability will need to increase by at least 52 percent from 2007 levels.

Yet agriculture is already having huge impacts on the world’s environment and resources. For instance, agriculture is the direct driver of about 80 percent of tropical deforestation. Agriculture is responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s consumption of freshwater, and nutrient runoff is a major cause of water quality degradation globally. And according to WRI’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), food production accounts for up to 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year due to deforestation, livestock, energy consumption on farms, and fertilizer use.

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