Q&A: Deborah Lawrence on Climate, Land and Our Future

Deborah Lawrence headshot

Environmental scientist Deborah Lawrence co-authored a recent United Nations report on climate and land. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

This month the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on climate change and land use. The report, produced by international teams of scientists studying the effects of human activity on climate, states that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced from all source sectors – including land use and food production – if societies are to slow global warming and ensure a sustainable food supply for growing populations.

Deborah Lawrence, a University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences and Environmental Resilience Institute member, contributed research to the report and shared her perspective with readers of UVA Today. 

Q. The UN has come out with several of these reports in recent years. Are we any closer to acting on solutions?

A. Some sectors are already acting. The market is providing clean energy faster and more cheaply than expected. Big companies like Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Harris Teeter and Target are demanding clean energy. In Virginia, they are pushing for important changes in the way we buy electricity. The big automakers just made their own deal with California to improve fuel efficiency, despite the [Trump] administration’s resistance. Eight car companies are producing new plug-in electric vehicles this year, another eight will bring an [electric vehicle] to market next year. And across the country, Americans are taking personal actions to combat climate change, like eating less meat or flying less.

Unfortunately, governments are moving slowly to revamp our energy infrastructure and put in place policies like carbon pricing that will incentivize all sectors, and all of us, to act. Some things only governments can do. So we are closer, but need a big push.

Q. You contributed to this recent report. What are some of your conclusions?

A. This report was about the interaction of land and climate; a two-way street. Agriculture and deforestation cause about 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change.

Meanwhile, remaining forests and natural ecosystems are part of the solution; they absorb 29% of all the CO2 we emit every year. Unfortunately, that two-way street is always being dug up. As the climate warms, forests work harder to persist, are more susceptible to pests, disease and fire, and may be less resilient through time. The lane of traffic supporting our land-based climate solutions gets narrower and narrower as the Earth warms.

Another striking conclusion is the importance of the land, and forests in particular, for creating a healthy climate on the scales at which we live our lives – our town, our state, our region.

The report highlights the many pathways by which forests stabilize climate. It is so much more than CO2. Forests manage rainfall by drawing water up from the soil and releasing it to the atmosphere as water vapor, sending it on its way to rain down nearby or somewhere further away rather than running overland, eroding soil and overflowing rivers. This process (called evapotranspiration) also cools the atmosphere, transforming heat energy we would feel on the spot into energy that is embodied in water vapor and moved away from us – higher into the atmosphere, across the continent, or even around the world. As the planet warms, having forests nearby will buffer extreme heat and extreme rainfall.

This is important here in Virginia, and even more important in the tropics, which are warmer to begin with, and, in many places, less able to cope with risks from heat and flooding.

I was also stunned by the fact that humanity is using over 70% of the ice-free land surface of the Earth and has degraded one-fourth of it. Scaled by GDP, that is 10 acres (eight football fields) per person in the U.S. – way more than one person needs to thrive. And it puts so many species, including ourselves, at risk.

Q. Is there still time to make an impact before reaching a tipping point toward a dangerously altered climate?

A. We still have time, but we need to move quickly. For the safest climate future, the last IPCC special report said we need to limit warming to 1.5° C, not the 2°C agreed to in Paris. That means turning our energy system around in the next five to 10 years: instead of emitting more greenhouse gases every year, we need to reduce emissions by 5% to 10% every year – hitting a 50% reduction by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. This is fast, but not crazy.

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The number of electric vehicles on the road almost doubled last year; it is expected to double two more times by 2030. Globally, almost two-thirds of all new electricity generation this year was renewable. Solar and wind are projected to grow 10% to 17% over the next couple years in the U.S. alone and power companies are pushing up the retirement date for coal and gas plants.

We have all the tools. We just need to find the political will.

Q. What can citizens do individually, including UVA students, staff and faculty, to better the conditions of our climate?

A. First, we can all vote. Only the government can change our infrastructure, determine the way we buy electricity, invest in the science to solve our climate problems and put a price on carbon. Engage with elected officials – write a real letter, make an actual phone call. It counts.

Second, we can live our values: choose chicken over beef, eat more plants than meat, and avoid food waste; use the cold water wash cycle, no-heat dry on the dishwasher and only use both when they are full. Bundle up and turn down the heat in winter; strip down, get a fan and use less AC in summer. Put four people in the car on spring break and vacations rather than flying (we have an app for that at UVA). If you, or your parents can afford it, buy an electric vehicle or put up solar. If you own your home, plant a deciduous tree and save on cooling. One of my favorites is hanging clothes out to dry – climate flags blowing in the wind that anyone walking by can see. People wonder. Some figure out I’m saving energy, and I get the best-smelling sheets.

That brings me to the third thing we can do: Be visible in our choices and talk about them with our friends. We listen to each other.

Q. What is the University doing to lead the way?

A. We create and share climate knowledge and we take seriously what we learn. We lead by example.

Sustainability is threaded throughout the new strategic plan, but the plan includes no specific climate goal. The University is in the process of setting a climate goal – so make your voice heard and stay tuned. Once in place, it will be up to [UVA] President [Jim] Ryan to commit the resources necessary to meet our goal.

I believe sustainability is becoming a core value of the University, driven largely by our students. UVA has a cadre of committed staff, students and faculty involved in the Committee on Sustainability, the pan-University Environmental Resilience Institute and efforts in just about every school.

I’d like to see sustainability mainstreamed so that every student, staff and faculty member learns about UVA’s vision for the future, what UVA is doing about climate change, and how they personally fit into the plan. UVA creates citizen-leaders, and citizen-leaders lead on climate.

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