Expert Perspectives

Integrating the Land Sector into Long-Term Strategies

In the Paris Agreement, the land sector is recognized as having a clear role in enabling the world to achieve the agreement’s long-term temperature goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC.” This role is made clear in the agreement’s Article 4, paragraph 1, which seeks to balance anthropogenic emissions by sources with removals by sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the second half of this century. The land sector is the only one that can function as a source of natural or anthropogenic emissions or as a sink, through direct or indirect human activities, as well as through natural processes involving forests, croplands, grasslands, and wetlands (especially peatlands), particularly in living biomass and soil organic matter. Integrating the land sector into long-term strategies requires, at a minimum, understanding the complexity of human actions and practices on land and how these and the climate influence the way ecosystems are accumulating or losing carbon to the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) systematically carries out regular assessments of the available scientific knowledge worldwide, highlighting the vulnerability of land carbon pools to climate change, as well as the potential of the land sector to help mitigate climate change and reduce its projected adverse social, environmental, and economic impacts. The latest IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC (SR1.5) indicates the benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (oC) compared to 2oC, such as lower projected impacts on terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems, including on biodiversity and ecosystem services to humans.  

Ecosystems are very sensitive to global warming. SR1.5 indicates that at the present global anthropogenic warming of 1.0oC above preindustrial levels, ecosystems’ dynamics are already changing, with the encroachment of woody shrubs into the tundra at high altitudes, for instance, already being observed. Ecosystems are projected to undergo transformation from one type to another, and this phenomenon would be more pronounced at global warming of 2oC than at 1.5oC. Different emissions trajectories are projected to have distinct implications on land that will shape the global, regional, and local landscapes. For example, there are vast differences between scenarios that increase agricultural land (for energy crops for bioenergy production and for food production to feed an increasing global population) versus those that include large-scale afforestation or reforestation (to help balance anthropogenic emissions by sources with removals by sinks of GHGs in the second half of this century). SR1.5 provides a range of measures that could radically reduce agricultural and land-use emissions, including plant-based proteins and cultured meat, large-scale use of synthetic or algae-based proteins for animal feed, enhanced carbon sequestration in soils, carbon dioxide (CO2) removal measures to permanently sequester atmospheric carbon in rocks, as well as carbon capture and usage in long-lived products such as plastics. A range of conservation, restoration, and land management options also can increase terrestrial carbon uptake.

All the above makes it clear that integrating the land sector into long-term strategies implies deciding the type of world we envisage for future generations. It also entails understanding the technical viability, economics, and sustainability of the various options to achieve and maintain carbon neutral energy and land use as well as the synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation options and their potential implications for biodiversity, water, food, and livelihoods. This is not trivial, due to uncertainties related to how humankind will use energy and land in the 21st century, use that will depend on factors including population level, trends in economic growth, behavioral changes, and technological development and deployment. It is clear, however, that a world at 1.5oC is projected to be very different from one at 2oC. Every bit of warming matters, as does every year of delay.

For the period 2008–17, Le Quéré et al. (2018) found global mean annual emissions from land-use change to be approximately 1.5  0.7 billion tons of carbon per year (Gt C/yr) and those from fossil fuels and industry to be 9.4 0.5 Gt C/yr. In 2017, the emissions released from these sources were 1.4  0.7 Gt C and 9.9 0.5 Gt C. Historically, the terrestrial biosphere and the ocean have contributed to remove nearly 55 percent of total annual anthropogenic emissions. Clearly, land makes an important contribution to the balancing of GHG emissions and removals called for in the Paris Agreement.

The treatment of the land sector under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has always been very challenging due to the real and perceived complexities associated with it. The limited number of land-related activities agreed to for accounting under the Kyoto Protocol (KP) in both commitment periods (2008–12 and 2013–20), for instance, was a clear demonstration of a lack of confidence in the sector’s ability to provide the emission reductions needed to comply with KP targets. Interestingly, developed countries were already applying a more comprehensive land-based approach to report net emissions from land use and land-use change that contrasted with the limited activity-based approach adopted for the KP. Under this approach, only afforestation, reforestation, and deforestation were mandated in the KP accounting in the first commitment period (CP1), whereas forest management, grazing land management, cropland management, and revegetation were elective activities for which few countries opted in the CP1.  Forest management became mandatory and wetlands drainage and rewetting was included as a new elective activity in CP2, due to the latter activity’s potential to significantly reduce methane emissions. However, so far no country has elected wetlands drainage and rewetting, indicating the need to strengthen domestic capacity as well as to develop and implement policies and plans to stimulate this activity.

The Paris Agreement provides much more flexibility to all countries to report their progress in implementing mitigation actions, which will be assessed on the basis of regular reporting of GHG inventories. At present, these inventories are reported by developed and developing countries following different IPCC guidelines, reflecting the different capacities of the two groups of nations. However, from 2024 onward all countries will report using the land-based approach articulated in the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, providing more comparability, although the Paris rulebook still assigns greater obligations to developed countries than developing ones, in keeping with differences in national capabilities.

Despite the broad range of mitigation options in the agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors, SR1.5 indicates the specific role of forest and soils and, in particular, of reducing emissions from deforestation in tropical regions. This is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s Article 5, which makes clear the role of forests in existing frameworks, such as REDD+1 and mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests. These and other activities in the land sector have been identified as critical for achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of GHGs in the second half of this century by countries that already have communicated their long-term low GHG emission development strategies.

REDD+ is already providing opportunities for developing countries to implement activities related to it. However, developing countries seeking to benefit from this financial instrument face numerous challenges. Among these are the stringent eligibility requirements, which include the submission of a forest reference level (FRL) and a national REDD+ strategy or action plan, as well as the existence of a robust and transparent national forest monitoring system and a system for providing information on how safeguards are being ensured. The capacity required to meet all these requirements is not trivial.

Since the agreement on the REDD+ rules in 2015, most FRLs submitted to the UNFCCC address reducing emissions from deforestation. Most countries recognize the significance of emissions from forest degradation but note the complexities of including them in their FRLs due to lack of reliable data or robust methodologies. Emissions from degradation included in a few FRLs focus on a limited number of degradation processes, mainly fire and wood extraction. Hence, integration of REDD+ into long-term strategies will require a substantial mobilization of international finance to motivate developing countries to engage in REDD+ beyond the usual aid instruments. The more countries engage in this as per performance payment, the less risk there is of international leakage, if countries can advance from subnational to national coverage of their forests.

The present limited level and lack of confidence in the sustainability of financial investments do not stimulate developing countries to implement REDD+ activities broadly. The reliance on markets to compensate for this situation is not consistent with the urgency of significantly reducing fossil fuel emissions by midcentury and might compromise effective climate change mitigation from forests. Since 15 to 40 percent of CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, forests would need to hold the corresponding carbon stock for equivalent periods of time to properly offset a pulse of fossil fuel-related CO2 emissions (IPCC 2013).

As another example, the level of initial investment, slow rate of return, high cost associated with verification, and high risk of permanence and leakage associated with the implementation of afforestation and reforestation (AR) project activities—in addition to the rigorous guidelines and procedures developed to ensure that Clean Development Mechanism projects would be additional, verifiable, and accurate—discouraged potential investors, leading to the insignificant number of initiatives to implement AR project activities under this mechanism. These lessons must be learned from the past if the global community is to undertake the urgent mitigation effort needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

All these considerations reinforce the need for public financial resources, which could be enhanced by attracting private sector finance for forests. Integrating the land sector into long-term strategies will require commitments by developed countries to provide the scale of investments necessary for developing counties to implement and sustain policies and plans to conserve and restore forest land.

If carefully planned, the land sector can provide many opportunities for governments to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and enhance their ambitions to limit climate change. Most NDCs include, conditionally or not, a range of land-based mitigation activities until 2030, several of which relate to forestry (reduced deforestation, sustainable forest management, etc.). In this regard, international cooperation, the critical enabler for the implementation of response measures (adaptation, mitigation) in developing countries as per SR1.5, needs to be reformatted. Considering the REDD+ experience so far, it is unlikely that the conditional NDCs will be implemented by developing countries unless countries move toward a pathway compatible with the sense of urgency, trust, and true collaboration needed to achieve Paris Agreement goals until 2030 and beyond.

For developing countries, integrating the land sector into long-term strategies requires strengthening institutions and establishing the regulatory frameworks, enabling environments, and governance necessary to minimize the risk of failure of their land-based activities. This is in addition to the access to technologies, finance, and capacity building essential for countries to conserve and enhance sustainable land-based activities. For developed countries, achieving these goals will require overcoming barriers that have so far prevented the land sector from being fully incorporated in their mitigation strategies, which are of a very distinct nature from those of developing countries.


IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp. Chapter 6, page 472.

Le Quéré, C., and Co-authors, 2018. Global Carbon Budget 2017. Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 10, 405-448, 2018.

1 REDD+ refers to policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as well as the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone