Unprecedented rates of land-use transformation in modelled climate change mitigation pathways

Integrated assessment models generate climate change mitigation scenarios consistent with global temperature targets. To limit warming to 2 °C, cost-effective mitigation pathways rely on extensive deployments of CO2 removal (CDR) technologies, including multi-gigatonne yearly CDR from the atmosphere through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation/reforestation. While these assumed CDR deployments keep ambitious temperature targets in reach, the associated rates of land-use transformation have not been evaluated. Here, we view implied integrated-assessment-model land-use conversion rates within a historical context. In scenarios with a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 °C in 2100, the rate of energy cropland expansion supporting BECCS proceeds at a median rate of 8.8 Mha yr−1 and 8.4% yr−1. This rate exceeds—by more than threefold—the observed expansion of soybean, the most rapidly expanding commodity crop. In some cases, mitigation scenarios include abrupt reversal of deforestation, paired with massive afforestation/reforestation. Historical land-use transformation rates do not represent an upper bound for future transformation rates. However, their stark contrast with modelled BECCS deployment rates implies challenges to explore in harnessing—or presuming the ready availability of—large-scale biomass-based CDR in the decades ahead. Reducing BECCS deployment to remain within these historical expansion rates would mean either the 2 °C target is missed or additional mitigation would need to occur elsewhere.