UN Says Humans Must Transform Our Diets and Land Use to Save the Planet

"For the first time, the world’s top scientists have confirmed what we have always known: respecting the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities is an immediate and actionable climate change solution."
Image: Joel Redman

To avoid a full-blown climate crisis and global food shortages, ending the use of fossil fuels won’t be enough—we must also restore and preserve lands and drastically change the way we eat, says a new UN report.

The world must take urgent action and stop cutting down tropical forests, draining peatlands, expanding deserts, and degrading soils, and change the way we produce and manage food—or risk not being able to feed ourselves, according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called "Special Report on Climate and Land," written by more than 100 scientists from 52 countries.


Two years in the making, the report draws its data from more than 7,000 scientific papers. More than half the authors are from developing countries, and the report is notable for including the vital contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

“For the first time, the world’s top scientists have confirmed what we have always known: respecting the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities is an immediate and actionable climate change solution,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, told Motherboard in an email.

The IPCC report makes clear that the world needs to transform its relationship with land if we are going to survive as a species, Tauli-Corpuz said: “Indigenous peoples can lead this transformation.”

Humans have increased our footprint to 73 percent of the planet’s ice-free surface, transforming it from uncultivated carbon sinks into major emitters of greenhouse gases.

In less than 50 years, more than 2 million forested square miles have been converted to agriculture, much of it intensive and that uses pesticides, compacts the soil, and increases erosion.

At the same time meat consumption has doubled, replacing plant forms of protein and resulting in a 70 percent increase in methane emissions from cattle and sheep. Simply replacing meat protein with beans, lentils, and nuts can have a significant impact, the report says.


Scientific modeling indicates we will need large areas of land to draw carbon dioxide out of the air to limit warming to 1.5 C.

Indigenous peoples already manage at least 22 percent, or 218 gigatons, of the total carbon found in tropical and subtropical forests, an alliance of Indigenous and community leaders from 42 countries said in a statement to policymakers. According to the World Bank, Indigenous peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, and safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Colonial governments formally recognize their ownership rights to only 10 percent.

The IPCC report found that innovative combinations of Indigenous, local, and scientific knowledge can contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change and desertification, and further cited Indigenous knowledge, land stewardship, and land rights as possible solutions.

Land titling and recognition programs, particularly those that authorize and respect Indigenous and communal tenure, can lead to improved management of forests, including for carbon storage, primarily by providing legally secure mechanisms for the exclusions of others, a leaked copy of the report said, although this was removed from the final version.

The report also recommends traditional agroecological practices such as local forest, water, soil, and fertility management, local seed use, improved grazing, and ecological restoration based on Indigenous knowledge and practices. Similar findings by French think tank IDDRI last December showed an agroecological food system in Europe could slash emissions by 40 percent compared to emissions in 2010.

“We have sustainably managed our lands and forests for generations,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “If our rights are recognized, we can continue to do so for generations to come. And if the world learns from our traditional knowledge, there may yet be hope for us all.”