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The Global Complexities and Interdependencies of Climate Change – What Role for the EU

Insights from the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report

Climate-change has never been so hot. The sense of urgency is top of the “global sustainability agenda” leader board. Echoing the United Nations desire to deliver a cross agency sustainability strategy with a specific focus on climate change, the following brief outlines some key insights from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest report, highlighting the ongoing complexities in tackling this global challenge.

Most of us are aware that what we eat has a direct impact on our environment and climate. The causality, however, is a complex process. The IPCC’s report focuses on the interdependencies between global warming, people and land use. While the report is based on 107 scientists’ consolidated analysis, it is yet to be seen whether the findings will have an impact on global decision-making and policy with the aim of delivering a sustainable green agenda. It remains both possible and plausible that the political power-game in certain regions will choose a different path. Nevertheless, the European Greens have already demanded from the European Commission’s President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, to reform the current CAP and the EU’s agricultural policy.

Following the European Parliamentary elections, the “green wave” is also expected to be reflected in the composition of the new European Commission, ostensibly with “green” commissioners, and with a major emphasis on the incoming Commission’s work program and climate change-oriented policy agenda. If the EU took a leadership role in driving the green agenda globally, not only would its internal policies change, so would the underpinning logic and focus on its external policies in areas such as development and external conflict resolution practices. Hence, the current IPCC report can serve as an evidence-based guide for future EU policy agendas and frameworks.

The IPCC’s report covers four key areas:

  1. People, land and climate in a warming world

  2. Adaptation and mitigation response options

  3. Enabling response options

  4. Action in the near-term

On the assumption that the sustainability/circular economy agenda will be more front of mind at EU-level, this brief points out some potential changes to existing EU policies by using the IPCC reports’ findings as its base.

Given that sustainable land management can actively contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple “stressors” including climate change, on ecosystems and societies, the EU would need to reconsider its current CAP. Land is both a source and a sewer of greenhouse gases (GHGs). It also plays a key role in the exchange of energy, water, and aerosols between the land’s surface and our atmosphere. Current concerns highlight that climate change creates additional stresses on land, exacerbating existing risks to livelihoods, food systems, biodiversity, human and ecosystem health, and infrastructure. The data indicates that:

• Global population growth and changes in per capita consumption of food have caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use, and have contributed to increasing net GHG emissions, loss of natural ecosystems (e.g. forests, savannahs, natural grasslands and wetlands) and declining biodiversity.

• 25-30% of total food produced is lost or wasted; changes in consumption patterns have contributed to about 2 billion adults now being overweight or obese. An estimated 821 million people are still undernourished.

• Soil erosion from agricultural fields is estimated to be currently 10 to 20 times (no tillage) to more than 100 times (conventional tillage) higher than the soil formation rate. Climate change exacerbates land degradation and desertification.

The report suggests that different socioeconomic pathways affect levels of climate related risks differently, which varies from continent to continent, from urban to coastal, and inland environments. Below are some of the suspected pathways as identified in the report.

The IPCC’s five Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs):

  1. SSP1 includes a peak and decline in population (~7 billion in 2100), high income and reduced inequalities, effective land-use regulation, less resource intensive consumption, including food produced in low-GHG emission systems and lower food waste, free trade and environmentally-friendly technologies and lifestyles. Relative to other pathways, SSP1 has low challenges to mitigation and low challenges to adaptation (i.e., high adaptive capacity).

  2. SSP2 includes medium population growth (~9 billion in 2100), medium-income; technological progress, production and consumption patterns are a continuation of past trends, and only gradual reduction in inequality occurs. Relative to other pathways, SSP2 has medium challenges to mitigation and medium challenges to adaptation (i.e., medium adaptive capacity).

  3. SSP3 includes high population (~13 billion in 2100), low income and continued inequalities, material-intensive consumption and production, barriers to trade, and slow rates of technological change. Relative to other pathways, SSP3 has high challenges to mitigation and high challenges to adaptation (i.e., low adaptive capacity).

  4. SSP4 includes medium population growth (~9 billion in 2100), medium income, but significant inequality within and across regions. Relative to other pathways, SSP4 has low challenges to mitigation, but high challenges to adaptation (i.e., low adaptive capacity).

  5. SSP5 includes a peak and decline in population (~7 billion in 2100), high income, reduced inequalities, and free trade. This pathway includes resource-intensive production, consumption, and lifestyles. Relative to other pathways, SSP5 has high challenges to mitigation, but low challenges to adaptation (i.e., high adaptive capacity).

Asia and Africa are projected to have the highest number of people vulnerable to increased desertification. North America, South America, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and central Asia are likely to be increasingly affected by wildfire. The tropics and subtropics are projected to be most vulnerable to crop yield decline. Land degradation resulting from the combination of sea-level rise and more intense cyclones is projected to jeopardize lives and livelihoods in cyclone-prone areas.

Within populations, women, the very young, elderly and poor are most at risk.

Urban expansion is projected to lead to the conversion of croplands directly resulting in losses in food production, placing additional pressure on our global food systems. Strategies for reducing these impacts can include urban and peripheral-urban food production, and the strict management of urban expansion. These can in turn be supported by greener urban infrastructures that can reduce climate risks in cities. These findings would mitigate the rethinking of the EU’s agendas relating to urban development, sustainable buildings, and building renovation. The Commission President-elect seems to have understood this and has already promised improved rules on green public procurement and “circular” renovation plans. The incoming Commission could also take forward its industry-wide tested LEVELs program on sustainable buildings.

According to the IPCC report, adaptation and mitigation response options are community, but also environmental, cultural and regional dependent. Moreover, they are interdependent on the global scaling up of the matter. Therefore, the report claims, in order to achieve sustainable food production and consumption, improved and sustainable forest management, soil organic carbon management, ecosystem conservation and land restoration, and reduced deforestation and degradation – all will require integration of biophysical, socioeconomic and other enabling factors. This requires a fundamental shift in our behavior, supported by educational and moral responsibility campaigns, as well as reducing the competition for land. Nevertheless, these measures will not guarantee climate change led land degradation in the long term.

Such limits to adaptation are dynamic, site specific and are determined through the interaction of biophysical changes with social and institutional conditions. In some situations, exceeding the limits of adaptation can trigger escalating losses or result in undesirable transformational changes, such as forced migration, conflicts and poverty. These may call for the reform of the EU Emissions Trading System – including as soon as possible the airlines –, and a reworked regional policy, which reflects more circular aspects. Environmental protection – forests and freshwater in particular – and the consideration of it in various state aid scenarios may also become subject to executive revision.

Research has also shown that diversification in our food systems can have a positive impact on reducing climate change induced risks. Balanced diets, which include plant-based foods, such as grains, seeds, fruits and vegetables, as well as animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present considerable opportunities for adaptation and mitigation, while generating significant benefits on human health.

Moreover, reducing food loss and waste has shown to lower GHG emissions and positively contribute to climate change, by decreasing the land area needed for food production.

The complexity of the issues combined with the diversity of the actors involved, means that a multi-policy approach is more likely to deliver improved results – strongly reducing the vulnerability and exposure of human and natural environments, from the effects of climate change.

The report suggests that actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change, strengthening land use. Knowledge and technology transfer can help enhance the sustainable use of natural resources for food security under a changing climate. Raising awareness, individual and institutional capacity building and education about sustainable land management practices, agricultural extension and advisory services, and expansion of access to agricultural services to producers and land users, can effectively address land degradation.

In future scenarios, deferral of GHG emissions reductions implies trade-offs leading to significantly higher costs and risks associated with rising temperatures. The potential for some response options, such as increasing soil organic carbon, decreases as climate change intensifies, as soils have reduced capacity to act as sinks for carbon sequestration at higher temperatures. Delays in avoiding or reducing land degradation, and promoting positive ecosystem restoration, risk long-term impacts such as rapid declines in productivity of agriculture and rangelands, permafrost degradation and difficulties in peatland rewetting

Deferral of GHG emissions reductions from all sectors implies trade-offs including irreversible loss in land ecosystem functions and services required for food, health, habitable settlements and production - leading to increasingly significant economic impacts on many countries, in many regions, around the world. Moreover, delaying action can in the longer-term have the potential to generate substantial additional GHG emissions from these very ecosystems, thus accelerating global warming.


Ultimately, much will depend on how the global community will handle the open access to resources phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the European Union can play a central role in this process. The IPCC’s full report is an insightful yet complex read – for the policy-maker summary, check here.


At Brussels Consulting we focus on monitoring and influencing sustainability-related policies. Our approach is to provide informed, first-hand and accessible information in a tailored manner. We do not just represent corporates or their associations. We gather primary data, track and analyse legislative behaviour, suggest ways to go about the ideas and aim to anticipate legislative moves in a transparent and scientifically sound way so that all parties benefit.



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