The Land Gap: How much land are countries promising to meet their climate pledges?

Aerial view of deforestation area for agricultural land by drone. Contact zone between forest and plantation.

The Land Gap: How much land are countries promising to meet their climate pledges?

A new study out this week by Melbourne Climate Futures shows that countries are favoring interventions like tree planting over protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing standing forests - despite national carbon plans requiring a land area four times the size of India.

The study shows that in order to achieve Paris Agreement goals and specific country-level Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), countries collectively need 1.2 billion hectares of available land. However, countries also intend to use 633 million hectares of total land area for activities like tree planting - taking away land desperately needed for food production and nature protection. Only 551 million hectares are set aside for restoration. There is no way to achieve all of the Paris Agreement goals relying predominantly on land-use change and restoration.

Perhaps the most problematic climate plans across countries are those that involve transforming land currently used for other purposes, including food production, into monoculture plantations and calling it tree planting. These changes would also encroach on land owned and stewarded but Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

But it is not too late for countries to rethink how they can use land to meet climate goals. The report lays out how countries and businesses seeking to deliver on zero-carbon pledges can reorient themselves to meet Paris Agreement goals:

  • Focus on protecting and restoring forests. Forests already remove a third of the carbon emissions added to the atmosphere each year. Protecting standing forests should be the first priority. The study outlines the actions countries can take to achieve this, which include, among other measures, safeguarding all primary forests and including the full cost of logging in the price of wood.
  • Safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The report cites a growing body of evidence showing that when Indigenous Peoples and local communities have secure land rights, they vastly outperform both governments and private landholders in preventing deforestation, conserving biodiversity, and producing food sustainably.
  • Transform unsustainable food and agricultural production systems. With the food system representing more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, transforming our approach to food production, distribution, and consumption is central to achieving climate goals in the land sector. One critical tactic is to implement agricultural management that uses the land more sustainably, based on biologically diverse systems, such as agroecology.
  • Monitor corporate pledges. Though this report focuses on country climate pledges, other studies have shown that corporate pledges are also unrealistically reliant on land to achieve climate goals. A recent study by Oxfam found that net-zero claims from Total Energies, Shell, Eni, and BP alone would require 70 million hectares of land by 2050.
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