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Latest IPCC report highlights the link between food systems and climate change

Updated: May 3, 2023



In mid-March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report during its 58th session, which was held in Switzerland between March 13 and March 19, 2023. The Synthesis Report is not exactly a new report, but rather, as its name suggests, a synthesis of the three Assessment Reports of the Working Groups: WGI — The Physical Science Basis; WGII — Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability; and WGIII — Mitigation of Climate Change. In addition to the three Special Reports: Global Warming of 1.5 °C; Climate Change and Land; and The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.


Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities, the primary cause of global warming, continue to rise due to factors such as unsustainable energy use, land use and land-use change, lifestyles, and consumption and production patterns between regions, countries, and individuals. In this context, the main highlight and warning of the report is: the pace and magnitude of actions against climate change are insufficient to combat the phenomenon effectively. In other words, if the current trends in GHG emissions continue, it will not be possible to limit the increase in global average temperature to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which will have a direct impact on various life forms and ecosystems, resulting in an increase in extreme weather events, water shortages, and food insecurity, among other consequences.


The challenges posed include the rapid reduction of global GHG emissions to nearly half by 2030, the scaling up of practices and infrastructure to increase resilience, and the need for initiatives across multiple spheres. The strategies for overcoming these challenges must be based on swift actions, options that are currently available and have been tested, the ability to be adapted to various contexts, and the significance of widespread dissemination and application. In addition to challenges, the report offers optimism through three main points: (i) the integration of effective and equitable climate actions will now reduce losses and damages to nature and people; (ii) climate actions provide co-benefits; and (iii) there are multiple viable and effective options to reduce GHG emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change. Among the pertinent factors for effective climate action, political commitment, inclusive governance, international cooperation, effective ecosystem management, and knowledge sharing were highlighted. However, the report emphasizes the necessity of increased decentralized funding for the effectiveness of this climate action.


When it comes to food systems, it is important to remember that they are both heavily impacted by and contributors to climate change. According to the report, agriculture, silviculture, and other land-use activities accounted for 22% of global GHG emissions in 2019. In addition, the report highlights several negative effects of human-caused climate change, including an increase in water scarcity and food production, as well as effects on health and well-being, cities, settlements and infrastructure, ecosystem structure, changes in species range, and weather. Indigenous peoples, small-scale food producers, riverine peoples, and fishermen are disproportionately impacted by climate change in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands, and the Arctic.


FOOD SYSTEMS IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE: MITIGATION AND ADAPTATION

Food systems are cited in the report as a means to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. Regarding the most significant current adaptation advances, the following actions are highlighted: cropping improvements, on-farm water management and storage, soil moisture conservation, irrigation, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm-level and landscape-level agricultural diversification, sustainable land management approaches, use of agroecological principles and practices, and other approaches that work with natural processes. However, it also presents the primary obstacles to adaptation, which are limited resources, a lack of private sector and citizen involvement, insufficient mobilization of funding (including for research), little or no climate education, a lack of political commitment, limited and/or slow research, low acceptance of adaptation science, and a lack of urgency.


On the subject of mitigation, the report highlights the significance of the former Kyoto Protocol and the more recent Paris Agreement, adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with almost universal participation, which has led to the development of policies and the setting of targets at national and subnational levels, particularly concerning mitigation, as well as enhancing the transparency of climate action and support. In addition, it highlights urban green infrastructure, improved forest and crop/grassland management, and reduced food waste and loss as ongoing mitigation strategies.


Some future changes will be inevitable and/or irreversible despite these actions, but they could be mitigated by a deep, rapid, and sustained reduction in global GHG emissions. As global warming progresses, adaptation options that are currently feasible and effective will likely become less so. While mitigation options frequently have synergies with other aspects of sustainable development, they may also have negative effects.


To achieve rapid and substantial emission reductions, a systemic shift is necessary. Despite the significance and magnitude of climate change adaptation strategies, the pace of this necessary change is not always sufficient. Transitions designed to reduce GHG emissions must involve multiple sectors and incorporate the following recommendations: deployment of low- or zero-emission technologies; demand reduction and changes through projects and access to infrastructure; sociocultural and behavioral changes; increased efficiency and technology adoption; social protection, climate or other services; and ecosystem protection and restoration. Despite the importance of coordinated action between different sectors of the economy, the availability, feasibility, and potential for mitigation and adaptation options in the short term vary across systems and regions. The report has a specific section on mitigation and adaptation options by sector, and, in the context of food systems, it includes the items: i) Land, Ocean, Food, and Water; and ii) Health and Nutrition.



Land, Ocean, Food, and Water

There are several options for agriculture, silviculture, and other land uses that provide adaptation and mitigation, as well as benefits that could be scaled up in the short term in most regions. The report includes the following points:

  • Conservation, improved management, and restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the largest portion of the economic mitigation potential, with deforestation reduction in tropical regions having the greatest total mitigation potential.

  • High demand for land and land speculation can generate negative impacts that necessitate integrated approaches to mitigate them and achieve multiple objectives, such as food security.

  • Demand measures, such as switching to healthy and sustainable diets and reducing food loss/waste, are also crucial;

  • Sustainable agricultural intensification can reduce ecosystem conversion, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions, and liberate land for reforestation and ecosystem restoration.

  • Use of sustainably sourced agricultural and forest products that can be used instead of more GHG-intensive products.

  • Effective adaptation options, previously mentioned, include cultivar improvements, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape diversification, and urban agriculture.

  • Concerning maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the report states that the conservation, protection, and restoration of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and ocean ecosystems, along with management focused on adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change, reduce the vulnerability of biodiversity and ecosystem services to climate change, reduce coastal erosion and flooding, and could increase carbon uptake and storage if global warming is limited.

  • Rebuilding overexploited or depleted fisheries mitigates the negative effects of climate change on fisheries and promotes food security, biodiversity, human health, and well-being.

  • Cooperation, and inclusive decision-making, with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, are important, as is recognition of Indigenous Peoples, as an integral part of successful adaptation and mitigation across forests and other ecosystems.

Health and Nutrition


Human health will benefit from integrated mitigation and adaptation options that integrate health into food, infrastructure, social protection, and water policies. Effective adaptation options exist to protect human health and well-being, including: strengthening public health programs related to climate-sensitive diseases; increasing the resilience of health systems; improving ecosystem health; improving access to safe drinking water; reducing the vulnerability of water and sanitation systems to flooding; enhancing surveillance and early-warning systems; developing vaccines; enhancing access to mental health; and developing Heat-Health Action Plans that include early-warning and response systems. Adaptation strategies that reduce food loss and waste or promote healthy, sustainable diets contribute to nutrition, health, biodiversity, and other environmental benefits.

The report concludes that the warning presented at the beginning of this text necessitates ambitious and disruptive choices that entail substantial and sometimes disruptive changes to existing economic structures, with significant distributional consequences within and among countries. As accelerating climate action is the top priority, the negative effects of these changes can be mitigated through fiscal, financial, institutional, and regulatory reforms, as well as by integrating climate action with macroeconomic policies.


SPOILER

The report makes the relationship between food security and water security abundantly clear, as there are multiple instances in which the discussion about access to water and sanitation is crucial for the well-being of humanity and its significance for the transition to healthy, equitable, and sustainable food systems. Soon, we will publish a water-themed blog post on the Comida do Amanhã Institute's website in honor of World Water Day and the United Nations Water Conference.

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