Land, Resource Investments and Climate Change: 3 Key Takeaways

On Nov. 2-3, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment will host the 11th annual Columbia International Investment Conference, entitled “Climate Change and Sustainable Investment in Natural Resources: From Consensus to Action.” The conference, taking place one week before COP22, will offer a high-level opportunity to explore the complex challenges of the Paris Agreement in light of sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the real challenges facing developing countries within the global economy. This blog series will help to frame some of the questions and issues that will be raised at the conference. For more information and to register (for free), visit the conference website.

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By Kaitlin Y. Cordes

Any discussion on climate change and sustainable investment in natural resources must grapple with land—a complicated yet crucial component of the search for equitable climate change solutions. In the context of resource investments, land is deeply entwined with both climate change impacts and climate change actions. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and nuanced topic, here are three key takeaways on the interactions between resource investments, land use, land rights and climate change.

1. Most resource investments affect land use, with varying climate implications.

Setting aside off-shore projects, most investments in natural resources affect how land is used. The resulting changes in land use have varying climate implications, ranging from negligible to significant.

When it comes to fossil fuels, for example, the primary climate change impacts arise from the use of the fuels themselves—more specifically, from the greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning them. Related changes in land use play a relatively small role in such commodities’ climate impacts. (Although this doesn’t mean that the land-use implications aren’t a problem, particularly when it comes to controversial concessions in protected areas.)

For other resource investments, the climate change impacts stem more from a combination of their production and the preceding (or accompanying) change in land use. This is the case for agricultural commodities: Agriculture and related land-use changes contribute approximately one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions (or arguably closer to half of all emissions, depending on which aspects of global food production are counted). Commodities such as palm oil and soy, for example, play a prominent role in deforestation, which in turn releases significant levels of carbon into the atmosphere.

Agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions cannot be blamed fully on deforestation and other land-use changes—a lot comes, for example, from fertilizers and livestock. Yet changes in land use, including for agricultural purposes, are currently responsible for about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—not insignificant. The emissions impact from land-use change is particularly evident when considering the top 10 countries responsible for carbon emissions: When calculations include land-use change and forestry, Indonesia and Brazil (key producers of palm oil and soy, respectively) jump into the list of top 10 emitters in the world. While Brazil has made great strides in reducing deforestation rates in recent years (earning it a billion dollars from Norway in the process), Indonesia has not, with continuing deforestation of carbon-rich peatlands for plantations.

Agribusiness companies, producers and traders are well aware of the negative climate impacts of deforestation that can occur within their supply chains, and many have made commitments to zero deforestation (as has Norway). While not all commitments look alike, the High Carbon Stock Approach developed by a multi-stakeholder group offers guidance for implementing deforestation pledges. Ensuring that deforestation pledges translate into effective action will be key to limiting the land-use-change dimension of agricultural investments’ contributions to climate change.

A third set of resource investments can be categorized loosely as climate mitigation projects, including investments in renewable energy and investment in carbon credit projects. These types of investments also affect how the underlying land is used, although the land-use change in these cases could be considered beneficial from a climate change perspective. Solar or wind farms, for example, which often require large swathes of land, might shift land use, but the outcome—cleaner energy—leads to climate benefits. Voluntary REDD projects theoretically go a step further, by simply preventing what would otherwise be detrimental land-use changes in forests with consequent climate impacts.

2. Many resource investments also affect land rights, with “sustainability” implications.

When resource investments shape how land is used, they may also affect land rights. Investments that occur in countries with weak or transitioning land governance systems may displace individuals or communities with legitimate—but not formal, legal, or documented—rights to the land. Of course, even countries with stronger property rights systems are not immune from these risks, as Native Americans protesting oil pipeline construction in the United States can attest.

Any “sustainable” investment in natural resources cannot ignore land rights. While there is no global consensus on what constitutes a “sustainable resource investment,” the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment’s Five-Pillar Framework helps identify elements of sustainable international investments—including the promotion of human rights and integrated development. Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that the land rights implications of an investment matter. Land is often essential for the realization of certain human rights. Land rights are also critical for sustainable development: Secure rights can result in poverty reduction, food security and improved gender equity. An investment that impinges freely on the land rights of others cannot be considered sustainable.

At a project level, land rights are also relevant for the sustainability of investments. “Land tenure risks” have financial implications for investors and can arguably affect project viability. Secure land rights, conversely, could help reduce the potential for costly community-company conflict.

3. In the quest to ensure sustainable resource investments in the era of climate change, understanding land use and land rights will be critical.

In the search for equitable climate solutions, land use and land rights in the context of resource investments cannot be ignored. As noted above, resource investments often affect how land is used—with implications for both climate change and land rights. The relationship between the two types of impacts is not always straightforward, and a narrow focus on one type of impact creates the risk of ignoring other negative consequences. For example, a land-intensive resource investment in a wind or solar farm might have positive climate impacts—while infringing on land rights.

Minimizing and avoiding both the negative climate impacts and the negative rights impacts of investments must be at the fore of our efforts to promote sustainable resource investments. While this may be easy to agree on in theory, challenges remain in ensuring that the land impacts relating to resource investments are always responsible and sustainable in practice. This raises a slew of questions. For example, what role should public and private stakeholders play? What would incentivize more sustainable practices regarding resource investments, land use, and land rights in the context of climate change? These and other questions will be up for discussion in November at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment’s conference; we hope you’ll join us there.

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