Expert Perspectives

Land Sector and Long-Term Strategies

The land sector must contribute significantly to overall mitigation ambition

Limiting climate change to 1.5°C of warming, or even less ambitious pathways, will require a significant mitigation contribution from the land sector. Recent analyses show that the land sector can provide this large-scale contribution, at reasonable cost and with appropriate safeguards for food security and nonclimate considerations (Griscom et al. 2017; IPCC 2018). Achieving this contribution requires not only reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) but also a range of other activities, including ambitious reforestation and restoration. A further finding of these analyses is that, in order to achieve this global contribution, ambitious long-term implementation is required in the land sector in most countries. It will not be enough to implement these activities in just a handful of key countries.

Long-term strategy development is particularly well-suited to the land sector, for a number of reasons

Mitigation benefits in the land sector often accrue over several decades. This is particularly true of the significant carbon stocks created through reforestation, forest restoration, and improved soil health. The land sector also can have especially long lead times in terms of policy implementation and turnover of physical equipment. The relatively short-term focus of mitigation over one or two nationally determined contributions (NDCs) can inadvertently decrease the perceived importance of land sector efforts. Long-term strategy development inherently is better able to place an appropriate value on such efforts.

Intact forest landscapes contain critical carbon stocks that are threatened over long timescales. Intact forest landscapes can contain more than twice the carbon stocks of degraded or secondary forest. In addition, recent science indicates that intact forests continue to sequester additional carbon and are not at steady state as previously assumed (Watson et al. 2018). Retaining intact forests’ carbon stocks and ongoing sequestration is a critical element of climate mitigation pathways (in addition, of course, to their conservation value and importance to forest-dwelling people). However, the bulk of climate finance has been directed to deforestation hotspots through REDD+ results-based finance efforts that typically have 5- or 10-year accounting time frames. Long-term strategy development can highlight the importance of addressing long-term threats before intact forests become hotspots, and make the case for increased climate finance for these efforts.

In addition, intact forest landscapes in boreal and temperate countries have at times been excluded from mitigation accounting because they are unmanaged and therefore are not required to be included in accounting, or the loss of carbon stocks in these remote regions, because it results from natural or indirect effects, is addressed using accounting approaches for natural disturbances. Long-term strategy development may offer a less controversial venue than NDC accounting to address these impacts.

Drivers of deforestation and other land-use decisions are often multisectoral and long-lived. Some immediate drivers of deforestation do lie within the land sector, especially legal and illegal logging and clearing of forests for cropland and grazing. However, many other threats arise from decisions made in other sectors or as a result of overall national economic development approaches. For example, roads and other linear infrastructure directly cause forest loss and fragmentation and indirectly lead to further logging or land clearing. Major threats emanating from other sectors include expansion of human settlements and other infrastructure, mining and resource extraction, and bioenergy and energy siting. Increasingly evident climate impacts present an indirect threat that must be considered in the 2050 time frame. The interlinkages and cross-sectoral coordination envisioned in the long-term strategies approach is therefore especially important for land sector climate mitigation. In addition, planning goals and decisions can lock in development trajectories for decades and require a long-term perspective to avoid unforeseen climate effects.

Long-term strategy development can identify and address sociocultural and political hurdles to effective climate mitigation policy

Land use can play a central role in perceptions of national sovereignty and community identity. Also, rural and land sector stakeholders are frequently politically powerful in domestic decision-making. Ignoring these sociocultural and political realities can doom effective climate policymaking. Ambitious mitigation pathways do require historically large-scale changes in the land sector, as they do in all sectors. It is inevitable that these potential changes will generate concern and at times outright opposition. (To be sure, these factors are present in many other sectors, such as coal mining, that have great cultural significance and are supported by entrenched, politically influential industries.) Long-term strategy development can help identify these issues and raise them in forums where stakeholders are under less pressure and have more time to address concerns than in the context of nearer-term policy development.

The failure of federal climate legislation 10 years ago in the United States provides one example of this dynamic. Several respected economic analyses showed that the single biggest climate benefit in the agriculture sector was afforestation of marginal cropland, and that voluntary afforestation incentives under proposed climate legislation would provide greater revenue to these private landowners than continued crop production (EPA 2005; EPA 2009). Despite the potential economic benefits and voluntary nature of the policy, concern over being pressured to shift land out of farming (land that in many cases had been in family farms for generations) contributed to the decision of national farm organizations to oppose the legislation. Yet just a couple years later, the same afforestation strategies were included in the U.S. midcentury strategy submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and provided a basis for constructive outreach to farm organizations.

Long-term strategy development can use less resource intensive data and modeling

One hurdle to including ambitious land sector policies in near-term mitigation policies or commitments has been uncertainty or lack of capacity around modeling the effects of these policies or in managing and monitoring implementation. While long-term strategy development can be informed by detailed modeling, it can also be performed with scenario tools that require significantly less capacity and resources and can be applied in all country circumstances (Ross and Fransen 2017). In addition, new and emerging tools, such as open source mapping, can support identification of current land use, trends, and other data.


Unique attributes of climate mitigation in the land sector make long-term strategy development particularly useful. Many important land sector mitigation approaches take decades to generate benefits yet are critical to initiate now in order to achieve ambitious climate mitigation pathways. A short-term focus (e.g., on NDCs or results-based climate finance) can overlook the value of some land sector activities. The land sector often is highly affected by decisions made in other sectors or by overall economic development approaches, and the long-term strategy approach can facilitate the necessary cross-sectoral planning. The long-term strategy approach also can identify and help resolve political and sociocultural barriers to ambitious climate policy.


EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2005. Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential in U.S. Forestry and Agriculture. EPA 430-R-05-006, November.

EPA. 2009. “EPA Preliminary Analysis of the Waxman-Markey Discussion Draft: The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 in the 111th Congress.” April 20.

Griscom, B.W., J. Adams, P.W. Ellis, R.A. Houghton, G. Lomax, D.A. Miteva, W.H. Schlesinger, et al. 2017. “Natural Climate Solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (44): 11645–50.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2018. “2018: Summary for Policymakers.” In Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C above Pre-industrial Levels and Related Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Pathways, in the Context of Strengthening the Global Response to the Threat of Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Efforts to Eradicate Poverty, edited by V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, et al. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization.

Ross, K. and T. Fransen. 2017. “Early Insights on Long-Term Climate Strategies.” Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute

Watson, J.E.M., T. Evans, and D. Lindenmayer. 2018. “The Exceptional Value of Intact Forest Ecosystems.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 2: 599–610.

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