Corporate land exploitation and climate change: Reflections on the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land

Posted on 29 August 2019

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

A Spanish translation of the article could be downloaded below.

A week after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on climate change and land, raging forest fires began to decimate Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

EmboIdened by its rightwing pro-business president, farmers and cattle ranchers set fire to vast swaths of the Amazon to clear land for big agro-businesses. The fires were also exacerbated by our time’s greatest existential threat: climate change.

The burning of “the lungs of the Earth” is a painful and costly demonstration of the gist of the latest IPCC report: the very land we rely on to stabilize the climate is being slammed by climate change .

The report validates civil society’s critique of the current large-scale industrialized agricultural system: that big agricultural transnational corporations (agro-TNCs) at the helm of this system must stand accountable for contributing to ecological land degradation and the current climate catastrophe.

Land has been abused and overexploited

The way humans have been using land is aggravating climate change. The IPCC report says that about 23% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from 2007 to 2016 came from agriculture, forestry, and other land-use practices. Moreover, 44% of the recent human-driven methane emissions come from agriculture, peatland destruction, and other land-based sources.

Despite increased deforestation and other land-use changes, the world’s lands are absorbing more emissions than they emit. From 2008 to 2017, land sucked around 30% of the world’s GHGs, according to the report. The absorption by land of carbon in the atmosphere occurs when trees and other kinds of vegetation undergo photosynthesis, as plants take in carbon dioxide for growth. In this way, land, specifically forests, acts as a “carbon sink”.

And yet, land serves more than this purpose. The report recognizes that “Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and wellbeing including the supply of food, freshwater, and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity”.

Overexploitation of land beyond its natural capacities, however, will only accelerate irreversible losses in land ecosystem services required to produce food and medicine, and secure habitable settlements.

Intensive agriculture and monocultures for plant-based fuels such as palm oil are driving deforestation of carbon-rich tropical forests, soil erosion, and degradation. Despite their negative impacts, the world does not appear to be relenting on its dependence on biofuels. In Indonesia, the government even plans to expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.

Untamed corporate power leads to land abuse and worsens climate change

Monopoly capitalism and the conquest of territories in the global South to supply developed countries’ needs for raw materials, food, and fuel have destroyed important carbon sinks such as forests.

The trend intensified during the food and financial crises of 2008 when high commodity prices led to a surge of interest in large-scale agriculture for food and biofuel crops. The same process is what is destroying the Amazon rainforests in Brazil today, as the country’s president Jair Bolsonaro delivers on his campaign promise of opening up the areas reserved