So you want to include land in the new climate agreement? Then take a rights-based approach.

By Allison Silverman, Staff Attorney Climate & Energy Program
By Allison Silverman, Staff Attorney Climate & Energy Program

The land sector accounts for almost one-third of global carbon emissions. Including agriculture, forests, and other land uses, the land sector acts as both a creator and a remover of emissions. Land is central to food production, livelihoods, cultural integrity, and biodiversity. Thus, the sector is unique and plays an important role in both mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Because land is such a critical sector in tackling climate change, many countries want to include it in the new climate agreement that will be adopted in Paris at the end of the year. However, what is not clear is if the sector will be addressed in a comprehensive fashion and whether its role as envisioned by most countries will deliver the best outcomes for the climate, for forest ecosystems, and for the people who depend on them. The key to doing this requires taking a rights-based approach.

Even as countries continue to submit their intended contributions in the new climate agreement, however, the role of forests and the land sector in supporting mitigation and adaptation efforts is unclear. It is essential that Parties focus not only on mitigation, but also on adaptation, rights, food security, and biodiversity. At the UN Climate Talks in Lima last year, we organized a panel discussion in collaboration with the Environmental Investigation Agency and others at the Global Landscapes Forum on the rights-based approach to land-use planning. To continue the dialogue, we have now co-written a briefing paper that makes the case for why a rights-based approach to land use in a future climate agreement is critical.

Briefing Paper “A Rights-Based Approach to Land Use in a Future Climate Agreement: Policy and Implementation Framework”

Historically, discussions around land use and climate change were caught up in the complexities of carbon accounting. Unfortunately, these discussions limited the role of the land sector to its emission reduction potential alone, and the rules were full of loopholes that minimized climate benefits. As we move towards the UN Climate Talks in Paris, there is interest among some civil society organizations and Parties to continue to concentrate on carbon accounting in relation to the land sector.

Alternately, in our briefing paper, we explain that solely focusing on the fine details related to carbon accounting is overly simple and short-sighted. Removals in the sector have the potential to be reversed, which means that ensuring permanence of the emissions that are reduced is an ongoing challenge. This potential lack of permanence speaks to the need to treat the land sector as distinct from other sectors (with industrial emissions), particularly in an accounting context. Additionally, the significant impact that land-use activities have on people and biodiversity calls for a more holistic and rights-based approach. What’s more, policy approaches that protect rights and preserve ecological integrity have a greater chance of ensuring that emission reductions are permanent.

A rights-based approach to land use would protect the lives and livelihoods of much of the world’s population that depends on land and natural resources for the full enjoyment of their rights and futures. While climate change is a direct threat to many core human rights, promoting and respecting rights in the responses to the climate crisis must also be central. A rights-based approach reinforces the international legal obligations States already have to respect human rights and support recent developments on integrating human rights in the climate regime. (See our briefing for specific, exciting examples of these developments.) Without a rights-based approach to the land sector, many are already calling to keep land out of a new climate agreement.

There are opportunities to apply this rights-based approach to the land sector and include principles of rights, equity, and biodiversity in the current draft negotiating text from Geneva. Although we recognize that a new universal agreement in Paris will likely not include details about the land sector, what should be included are basic principles that reflect a rights-based approach. We will work to encourage Parties to recognize that the land sector is unique, that it plays a vital role in climate change, and thus that its inclusion should go beyond carbon accounting to include rights, biodiversity, and food security.

Ultimately, this briefing builds on previous efforts and provides guidance for how to move these ideas forward over the next eight months, ensuring a rights-based approach is integrated into any guidelines around land-use in the Paris agreement.

Originally posted on May 20, 2015.