The Critical Case for Reforming Land-Based Carbon Accounting

Tim Searchinger

man smiling in white shirt
Tim Searchinger

The capacity of land to grow plants plays a key role in emerging carbon-neutrality climate strategies of both countries and companies. Strategies often claim credit for using this capacity to reduce emissions from other sectors, as in the case of bioenergy or long-lived wood products, or to reforest land and thereby offset other emissions. Yet, there is a fixed quantity of global land, and the benefits of one use need to be offset against the opportunity costs.

This talk will argue that in various ways standard national IPCC reporting guidance, national laws, carbon offset rules and lifecycle approaches all fail to count or fully count these opportunity costs. The flaws are resulting in important national and corporate strategies that are likely to harm both the climate and biodiversity. As one example, the EU’s newly proposed Fit for 55 strategy is likely to outsource much of Europe’s land requirements even as Europe already appropriates land outside Europe heavily to meet its needs. The talk will discuss the types of reforms needed and the role climate scientists and researchers can play in pressing for reforms.

Tim Searchinger is a Senior Research Scholar at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and Senior Fellow at World Resources Institute, where he serves as technical director of its Food Program.

Searchinger’s work combines ecology, agronomy and economics to analyze the challenge of how to feed a growing world population while reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. His publications include multiple papers in Science and Nature addressing bioenergy, nitrogen pollution and the greenhouse implications of agriculture and land use change. He was the lead author of a comprehensive, detailed report describing these challenges and potential solutions called Creating a Sustainable Food Future, which was published in 2019 by WRI, the World Bank and the United Nations.

His research ranges from global analyses to projects in countries around the world including Colombia, Rwanda, Zambia, Vietnam and Denmark, and focuses both on issues of science and of public policy.

For the first part of his career, Searchinger worked as an environmental attorney, primarily at the Environmental Defense Fund, where he directed its work on agricultural policy, wetlands and restoration of several major aquatic ecosystems, and received a National Wetlands Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Searchinger has also been a fellow of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund, a Senior Fellow of the Law and Environmental Policy Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, a special adviser to the Maryland government on the Chesapeake Bay, a Deputy General Counsel to Governor Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania and a federal appellate law clerk. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School where he was Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal.

This event is hosted by the Oxford Martin School in conjunction with the Oxford Biodiversity Network

 

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