E109: The FABLE of International Sustainable Development

Thursday, January 28, 2021

To meet the challenge of feeding the world's growing population and safeguarding the planet's land and resources in perpetuity, nations are going to have to work together like never before. Today's guests are part of a 20 country research consortium, dubbed FABLE, which stands for Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use and Energy. Guests: environmental policy specialist, Jordan Poncet, who coordinates FABLE for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Justin Baker, Associate Professor and forest resource economist at North Carolina State University.

The FABLE of International Sustainable Development

Interview Summary

Jordan, let's begin with you. The FABLE Consortium just published a new report that was entitled, "Pathways to Sustainable Land-Use and Food Systems," a very important report indeed. Can you help our listeners understand who's part of the consortium and what the consortium hopes to achieve?

FABLE is a global network that operates as part of the Food and Land-Use Coalition. It's made up of research teams from 20 countries and is coordinated by a secretariat, led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis along with it, Diversity State National and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. What we do is, we ask ourselves a pretty big question, which is how can countries shift towards sustainable land-use in food systems. We know that these systems are critical for ensuring food security, net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the protection of biodiversity and many other important objectives. But we also know that these systems currently drive massive biodiversity and forest loss that, depending on how you account for it, are responsible for over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and that they contribute to unhealthy diets and food insecurity. These are really thorny complex issues and solving them requires a really careful assessment of the trade-offs between competing uses of land as well as international spillover effects since so much of agricultural production is traded internationally. What we've found is that countries tend to lack the tools and capacity to carry out these assessments.

So the first hand of FABLE is to build the capacity, to model these complex systems and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the research teams in our consortium. And the second is to support the development of national pathways that are consistent with global sustainable development objectives like the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement. In terms of what we hope to achieve, we really work to help ensure that science can help inform policy on land use and food systems. And that questions around food and land-use systems are integrated into country's policy commitments particularly those that relate to climate and biodiversity.

This is a very ambitious effort. So explain if you would, why cross-country consortium is needed. And can you give some examples of the kind of multi-national coordination and policy that's needed?

There are several reasons why international consortiums like FABLE are needed to address these questions but I think two are particularly important and interlinked. The first is international trade. Most land-use decisions are made at the national or really even sub-national level, but because so much of what is produced is traded, any national pathway really should consider the impacts of trade. The second, which I think is linked has to do with global commitments and targets. So national pathways are necessary for charting a course towards sustainability at the country level but they also need to ensure that the sum of national pathways can help us meet global targets.

So what FABLE does is provide a space to test this, through what we call a Scenathon or a scenario marathon. And in that process, the consortium collectively sets global targets mainly taken from existing international commitments and from the planetary boundaries concept. And once those targets have been set, the research teams developed our national pathways with the targets in mind and come together to add them up and see how far they are from achieving the global targets. And that process of collective review repeats itself over several iterations and allows the teams to raise our level of ambition to ensure that the sum of all country pathways achieves the targets. And in terms of actual international policy commitments that would be needed to achieve these goals, I think one example would be the raising of ambition of countries nationally determined contributions, and the submission of long-term climate strategies as called for by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and critically with the 2021 UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity meetings, you see a major opportunity to integrate biodiversity conservation into these climate strategies.

So thank you, Jordan. Justin, let's turn to you. You worked on this team creating a sustainable land-use and food system pathway for the United States. Can you describe what does this look like?

Absolutely, and thank you for this great question. For me it's been incredibly exciting to be part of this global community where we're working together as a consortium and each individual team is working to balance multiple sustainable development targets at different scales while recognizing the importance of each of our isolated systems, as either a net producer or a net consumer of agriculture and forestry products in the global system. Obviously the U.S. is really unique here and that we are such a major supply source for agricultural products and forest products.

So for this particular analysis, the U.S. team first started by identifying three potential pathways. The first, what we call our current measures is thought of as our business-as-usual scenario. So here we're not really pursuing ambitious sustainability policies. Our diets continue to remain fairly consistent with current consumption trends and we see land-use change continue to be driven by population growth, income growth, and development pressures. Under this scenario we lose forest land and other lands that have high biodiversity benefits and we see a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the land-use system in the United States as agricultural production and loss of natural lands increases over time.

Our next two scenarios, sustainable medium ambition and sustainable high ambition, ask what might future land-use patterns look like if we really focus on sustainability policy in these sectors and what are some potential trade-offs? So here we focus on several ambitions consistent with other global team members, mostly in line with global targets including increasing biodiversity conservation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration, promoting healthier diets and reducing the water footprint of agricultural production. We developed these goals consistent with the policy commitments that have been made or proposed over the last five years or so in the United States. That includes greenhouse gas reduction commitments that fall under the previous Paris Accord Agreements that the U.S. put forward or other greenhouse gas policy ambitions that we're seeing in recent reports that have focused on decarbonization pathways in the energy sector or in the broader economy. So that includes initiatives such as reforestation, afforestation targets and bioenergy production to help meet energy sector goals. We also include a different diet assumptions in our sustainability pathways. We model healthier diets, consistent with USDA nutrition guidelines.

So I'll offer two key takeaways here. One is that we really show that it is indeed possible to expand the amount of land where natural processes predominates by up to 10% also while substantial increase in carbon sequestration or reducing net emissions, reducing the water consumption and the water footprint of agricultural production in the U.S. and devoting agricultural land to bioenergy so that we can help meet these energy sector climate targets. We can do all of this while continuing to meet rising domestic and international consumer demand for agricultural products in particular, we show that one natural climate solution tree planting or afforestation, which is the subject of many current policy debates in the U.S. and elsewhere is to really play a critical role here in helping us to achieve these climate targets in the land-use sectors. Another important takeaway is that, we show how important diet assumptions are and driving future land-use patterns. Whenever we look at our current measures scenario our cropland and pasture projections, and associated environmental impacts are all very sensitive to assumptions about future diet composition. If we continue on with this trend of high meat and in particular red meat consumption that could result in a much different and less sustainable land-use future than diets that prove nutrition and health outcomes in the U.S..

Thank you Justin. Now for the big question, once you created a country pathway, what happens next? I mean, how do you move from this work of a theoretical model in the practice and Justin, let's start with you and then I'd like to hear from Jordan.

This is another great question. I have to say in many ways, we viewed this as the starting point, right, not the end objective that initial modeling has many potential extensions that we have tons of work to do. And the U.S. team recognizes that, in particular, one thing that's really important when we start talking about guiding policy design communicating with policy makers is, is a better discussion of trade-offs, right? So in our U.S. chapter, we have a high level discussion of potential trade-offs of these different pathways but really more work is needed to understand some of the potential economic costs and more importantly the distributional consequences of these sustainable pathways. That's going to acquire a lot more refined spatial analysis and new collaborations with a wider range of disciplinary experts.

We also envisioned closer coordination with key U.S. trading partners and subsequent analyses so that we can better harmonize our assumptions about bilateral trade flows between for instance the U.S. and Canada, and the U.S. and Mexico, under these different sustainability assumptions. And then of course, outreach and engagement will be really key. We have big plans this year. I mean, obviously the U.S. is undergoing a leadership transition right now so we'll continue to keep an eye on potential policy proposals that are being pushed by the transition team and by the incoming administration. We hope to communicate our current findings and some of our subsequent modeling efforts with policymakers later this year.

Jordan, what are your thoughts on that big question?

So I think I'd really just like to echo what Justin has said. I think what we find is that pathways are primarily a starting point or a useful tool for facilitating constructive and transparent dialogue with stakeholders because they can really help focus conversations around specific policy targets and objectives and tests many possible futures. So, right now what many of the FABLE country teams are doing is that they're engaging with national experts and policy makers around their quantified pathways. For example in the UK and in the Nordic countries where they have ongoing dialogues to design and refine their pathways in light of ongoing or upcoming policy processes, such as for example the impacts of Brexit which will have many implications on land-use and food systems in the UK and more widely. And others are looking at how FABLE tools can also help support the development of more targeted food and land-use pathways that align with the various specific policy objectives. I think one example that we're increasingly seeing a number of countries look at as the case of net zero emissions by mid-century which many countries are increasingly committing to and looking at how the land-use and food systems can support that.

Jordan Poncet is a Manager at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network where she coordinates the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use, and Energy (FABLE) Consortium, a network of leading research institutions from 20 countries working to develop globally consistent long-term pathways towards sustainable land-use and food systems. Most recently, she coordinated the consortium’s second global report, Pathways to Sustainable Land-Use and Food Systems. Prior to joining the SDSN, she conducted research in the office of the CEO at the European Climate Foundation and supported the implementation of environmental policy at the European Commission. She holds a Master’s in Environmental Policy from Sciences Po Paris.

Justin Baker is an Associate Professor of Forest Resource Economics and Director of the Southern Forest Resource Assessment Consortium (SOFAC) at NC State University. Dr. Baker specializes in the development and application of economic models that reflect spatial and temporal dependencies between markets, natural resource systems, infrastructure, and policy factors. His recent research covers a wide range of topics, including forestry and land use, integrated water resource management, climate change mitigation and adaptation, interactions between trade policy and the environment, and energy policy. Prior to joining the faculty at NCSU, he held research economist positions at RTI International and Duke University. Dr. Baker also holds a guest researcher affiliation with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and maintains collaborations with various government stakeholders, NGOs, and academic institutions.