Sustainable land use is essential to meeting climate targets

Key messages

  • Agricultural intensification that is long-term sustainable is preferable to further expansion into natural areas, when proper policies are in place to limit increased land conversion. Efforts to increase food production through enhanced yields and system integration while minimising adverse ecological impacts can likewise do much to further food security.
  • Land uses that achieve an optimal bundle of services (for climate solutions, food security and ecosystem integrity alike) depend on the climate pathway – the higher the degree of warming, the less likely the current assumptions about the capacity of land systems to deliver these co-benefits will apply.
  • Integrated land management can provide climate solutions while also benefiting people and the environment; however, land-use changes entail trade-offs more often than mutual wins. Approaches that work to balance trade-offs identified by stakeholders are more likely to provide socially acceptable climate and conservation outcomes.

Insight explained

A radical shift in land use is required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Agricultural expansion is a major driver of forest loss in the tropics and thus a key driver of GHG emissions, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services vital to the livelihoods of nature-dependent and rural people. Land systems1 are thus central to two critical COP26 outcomes: the Declaration on Forests and Land Use and the Global Methane Pledge.

Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change (such as from droughts and extreme weather events) on agricultural yields are already affecting land systems, reducing ecological and social resilience and threatening livelihoods, particularly those of the most vulnerable. Global geopolitical shocks, such as the war in Ukraine, further diminish resilience and serve to demonstrate how globally interdependent agricultural supply chains can increase food system vulnerability, aggravating food insecurity and having important repercussions for landscapes and people across the globe. Important changes to how we use land are needed to avoid undesirable future outcomes. Protecting land systems for the benefit of people and the planet requires an integrated approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation, along with jurisdictional and landscape-scale strategies and approaches.

Climate mitigation through land-use change can support multiple co-benefits. For instance, preventing the conversion of natural forests, protecting existing primary and old growth forests and restoring degraded forests will protect diverse ecosystems, environmental services and livelihoods, while capturing and storing more carbon. However, it is essential to also account for key integrative functions of land for people (e.g. food, nature or cultural benefits, including sense of place) to ensure that land systems are more likely to be just, resilient to shocks, and productive. Moreover, uncertainty about plants’ ability to absorb carbon in high-emission futures may further diminish effectiveness of land-based mitigation strategies. Therefore, any climate mitigation scheme must foster ongoing capacity for further adaptation and change by the people and social systems dependent on this land.

Food security can be improved by ensuring reliable water supplies and soil integrity, especially in the face of extreme climate events such as drought. Conservation and regenerative farming practices, such as no-till systems, use of cover crops, and leaving plant residue on the field, can improve soil quality and increase soil organic carbon stocks – the major mitigation strategy from land use, e.g. the International “4 per 1000” Initiative. Healthy soils have higher water-holding capacities and are less susceptible to erosion, which helps to preserve soil productivity for future generations.

Systematically reducing the climate impact of existing land activities has enormous potential. Examples of positive effects of soil conservation on food security and the environment can be observed across the globe, in both high- and lower-income contexts, as evidenced in recent studies from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Northeast India. In the United States, improved forest, cropland and rangeland management could provide ~45.8 Gt CO2e of mitigation by 2100. In Canada, land-use practices related to the conservation, management and restoration of natural systems have an emission reduction potential of 78.2 Tg CO2e/yr by 2030, equivalent to the emissions of this country’s heavy industry in 2018. Best-practice approaches for researchers and policymakers to implement elsewhere would wisely be founded on a synthesis of positive lessons from a variety of diverse contexts.


Co-benefits of climate-smart land management

There is compelling evidence that effective management of natural landscapes can yield climate solutions with significant co-benefits to social systems. Though the goal of net zero by 2050 will require significant shifts in business-as-usual, effective policy actions can help provide food, livelihoods, nature and a sense of place and identity, while also providing climate solutions. For instance, managing forests and tree-based ecosystems, grasslands, peatlands and agricultural lands can lead to improved soil productivity, clean air and water, and biodiversity conservation – while simultaneously securing those systems against climate extremes. Though it is also critical to recognise that the functions of land are so diverse and crucial to humanity that land-based carbon sinks should be viewed as a co-benefit of sustainable land management, rather than the other way around.

An effective land-based solution to climate change will prioritise reducing gross emissions from land-based activities. Some carbon sequestration through land systems is also necessary to compensate for hard-to-reduce emissions and achieve net-zero emissions. Urgent policy actions are needed to: (a) prevent the conversion of natural ecosystems, in particular tropical deforestation and degradation; and (b) curb methane and nitrous oxide emissions, in particular from livestock and other agricultural activities. Putting equity considerations at the centre of these land-based climate solutions is essential for their overall moral grounding, but also their effectiveness. Land-system changes that prioritise ecological concerns and ignore equity will likely only be a temporary solution to a very narrow framing of the problem.

Implications & Recommendations

At a global level, it is suggested that parties at COP27:

  • Strengthen forest-based actions of the Paris Agreement, to prevent the conversion of natural ecosystems, particularly tropical deforestation and degradation.
  • Recognize and account for the abundance of trade-offs involved in pursuing a single goal related to land use (i.e. nature conservation or tree-planting), as they could severely impact other functions of land to people. Harmonise different approaches to accounting for emissions from land-use activities to increase transparency and improve monitoring of the progress of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): methodological approaches and definitions of natural and managed areas need to be standardised to reduce the uncertainty about the emissions associated with land-use change, land cover and forests. Going forward, transparent and scientifically robust accounting will be required to broadly include land-use activities in the NDCs. Support for rigorous impact evaluation is urgently needed.

At a national and local level, policymakers must:

  • Implement policies and incentives to reduce non-CO2 gas emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide, from livestock and other agricultural practices.
  • Support the transition of existing agricultural systems towards more sustainable and resilient land management practices, helping to build healthier soils and ensure efficient water use, to engender long-term food security.
  • Recognise that the shift towards conservation and regenerative practices takes some time to unfold; targeted governmental support of farmers during the transition period is crucial for incentivising sustainable changes. In many cases, crop yields will improve, but often during the transition period, food production will drop. Governments must be poised to protect those most exposed to shocks, such as those with reduced access to food, during these transitions.
  • Support vulnerable groups and regions in adapting land management strategies towards anticipated extremes, such as through diversification, supportive risk management strategies, and provision of alternative livelihoods.
  • Seek and promote land management solutions that deliver co-benefits for people and the planet. This will be aided by involving local communities in the design of potential solutions and supporting the development of the democratic and adaptive governance processes that support implementation.


  1. Defined as terrestrial socioecological systems where human and environmental systems interact through land use (Meyfroidt, P., et al., 2022. Ten facts about land systems for sustainability. PNAS, 119(7). doi:10.1073/pnas.2109217118)
  2. Defined as terrestrial socioecological systems where human and environmental systems interact through land use (Meyfroidt, P., et al., 2022. Ten facts about land systems for sustainability. PNAS, 119(7). doi:10.1073/pnas.2109217118)

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

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