Toward a Carbon-Neutral Future: Why Land and Resource Rights Matter

On Nov. 2-3, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, in partnership with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 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 Stephen Brooks

Next week, the Paris Climate Agreement will enter into force. It is hard to overstate the importance of this historic agreement and its potential impact on combatting global warming and reducing emissions. Our efforts to address a rapidly changing climate will require progress on many fronts, from clean energy to land-use planning. Next week, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment’s International Investment Conference will highlight the implications of the Paris Agreement on one of those fronts:  land and resource governance—an issue that is increasingly important to USAID’s work.

Climate change is a destabilizing force that touches all sectors of society, whether agriculture, forestry, infrastructure, energy, water or health. The inherently intertwined and complex nature of climate change impacts means that strong institutions, laws and policies are critical to ensuring that these impacts don’t impinge on the rights of local populations. Key among these institutions, laws and policies are those that deal with land and resource governance.

In both urban and rural areas, lands that are most susceptible to climate impacts, such as floodplains around urban centers, or areas with low rainfall and high temperatures, also tend to be home to the poorest citizens, with the most insecure property rights. For example, over 25 percent of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements without secure property rights. These same settlements are among the most vulnerable to climate change. This means that people most likely to be impacted by climate change also have the least amount of tenure security; they will be hit hardest by rising sea levels, increased devastation from floods, and weather pattern aberrations, and they will have the hardest time adapting.

Additionally, climate change may be a contributing factor in mass migrations that further strain land governance systems and contribute to tenure insecurity—both in the communities people are migrating to, and those they are migrating from. Already today, over 12 million hectares of land are lost to desertification or drought each year, prompting existing land users to migrate in search of new lands. A lack of well-defined land administration systems at national and local scales has limited our ability to implement adaptation measures and proper land use zoning, and to safeguard urban and coastal populations from climate change impacts.

Weak land tenure and resource governance systems are also hindering many climate change mitigation efforts. For example, in developing countries, the land use sector is a primary driver of forest loss and degradation, as well as agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases. In some countries, the land use sector is the largest contributor to climate change. This destruction is often related to poor land governance: The lack of secure land and resource rights compels individuals to secure their rights by converting forests to agricultural land, leading to mass deforestation. There is a growing recognition that improved land use can only occur with clear property rights and better land and resource governance conditions.

For example, in Brazil, forests that are securely owned and managed by communities harbor 36 percent more carbon per hectare—and produce dramatically fewer emissions from deforestation—than areas outside of these reserves. Furthermore, clear and secure resource rights can be a significant factor in stakeholders’ eligibility to benefit from global climate funding programs focused on improved forest management practices and provision of carbon credits.

USAID, through its commitment to ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies, has increased its focus on the intersection between global climate change and natural resource governance systems. From supporting legal and policy reforms analyses for inclusive climate change mitigation, to engaging community resource governance institutions, to supporting adaptation planning, USAID is working through multiple channels to address the complex set of issues around tenure and climate change.

For example, in Zambia, USAID is supporting systematic customary land documentation for households and communities in agricultural and forest areas to help clarify rights to participate in climate-smart agriculture activities. In Vietnam, USAID is supporting the piloting of a Coastal Forest Policy that will improve coordination among resource governance institutions at the commune, province and national levels regarding coastal land use planning for sustainable mangrove forest management. With the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, USAID is piloting activities with private sector actors to reduce deforestation in supply chains by clarifying the land and resource rights of smallholders and increasing transparency.

As the Paris Climate Agreement enters into force, and the world looks toward its implementation, it is critical to remember that the push to reduce emissions and switch to clean energy sources also includes securing the land and resource rights of the most vulnerable, so that they can also reap the benefits.

Stephen Brooks is a land and resource governance advisor at USAID. 

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