New UN Report on Climate Change and Land – and the Role of Environmental Law

By Christina Voigt, Chair of the Climate Change Specialist Group, WCEL - On 7 August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its newest Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse gas fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems. This report assesses the complex linkages between people, land and climate in a warming world.

Food Security

Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being including the supply of food, freshwater and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity. At the same time, human activities with respect to land are both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Climate change creates additional stresses on land, exacerbating existing risks to livelihoods, biodiversity, human and ecosystem health, infrastructure, and food systems. 

The report provides several options for adaptation and mitigation responses, most prominent among them is sustainable land management. 

In order to be effective, however, climate change response options have to address the entire food system, from production to consumption, including reducing food loss and waste, including also influencing dietary changes. 

The report also highlights the important role of environmental law. Sustainable land management can be enabled by the appropriate design of policies, institutions and governance systems at all levels and scales. Law is important in regulating and improving access to markets, securing land tenure, participatory decision-making and fostering engagement and collaboration between multiple stakeholders. The effectiveness of decision-making and governance need the involvement of local stakeholders, including indigenous peoples and local communities, women, and the poor and marginalized, in the selection, evaluation, implementation and monitoring of policy instruments. Government regulation through laws and regulations is necessary for factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action. In all these transition and changes, environmental law is an indispensable lever. 

But land is not the only solution. Land must remain productive to maintain food security and ecosystem services. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and large scale afforestation. 

Importantly, therefore, the report stresses that rapid and deep reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2ºC, if not 1.5ºC, especially from the energy and transport sector. 

This is in line with its previous special report on 1.5ºC warming, where the IPCC noted that limiting global warming to 1.5°C “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options”. 

Strengthening environmental laws and policies, their implementation and their enforcement – and the rule of law more generally – can and must generate such transition.

About the Author

Christina Voigt

Dr. juris Christina Voigt is professor at the Department of Public and International Law, University of Oslo, Norway. Professor Voigt is an expert in international environmental law. She works in particular on legal issues of climate change, environmental multilateralism and sustainability. Professor Voigt is a member of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL), member of the IUCN Task Force on Climate Change and the chair of the IUCN WCEL´s Specialist Group on Climate Change. In 2009, she was awarded the first IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Junior Scholarship Prize. 

She is the author of numerous academic articles and several edited volumes; most recently “International Judicial Practice on the Environment – Questions of Legitimacy” (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and “Courts and the Environment” (with Z. Makuch, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018). Others include “Research Handbook on REDD+ and International Law (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016), “The Common Interest in International Law” (with W. Benedek et al., Intersentia, 2014) and “Rule of Law for Nature” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

Since 2009, she has also been working for the Norwegian government as lead negotiator on REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries) and as principal legal advisor in the UN climate negotiations; negotiating, inter alia, the Paris Agreement (2015) and the Katowice Rulebook for the Paris Agreement (2018). At COP24 in Katowice, she was co-facilitator for the negotiations on the rules for the Agreement´s compliance committee.

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