Paris agreement requires agriculture emissions target to succeed

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Tuscany in Italy. [Mark Goebel / Flickr]

The Paris climate agreement was historic. Some 177 nations signed the Paris treaty to limit warming to at least 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Yet the question remains – are countries clear on how they will get there? asks Dr Lini Wollenberg.

Dr Lini Wollenberg is the leader of the CCAFS Low Emissions Development research program, based at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.

To guide climate change mitigation and track progress towards this ambitious agreement, clear and measurable global targets need to be set for all sectors. But greenhouse gas emission reductions by the usual suspects – the industrial, transport, and energy sectors –won’t be enough to meet the 2°C limit. Scenarios indicate that mitigation in agriculture also will be necessary, including in the developing world. The agriculture sector, which contributes between 10-12% of emissions, has huge untapped mitigation potential.

This is something countries are well aware of. 119 nations pledged to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in their plans submitted to the United Nations ahead of the Paris climate conference. Most identified commitments based on the information and technology available to them, not on what is needed to meet global climate change goals. Very few set quantitative targets for agriculture and those that did vary widely in ambition and precision.

That is why researchers at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and partner institutions collaborated to calculate the first global target for reducing agricultural emissions linked to the 2°C limit.  Linking the target to a meaningful global policy goal provides a reference point for assessing contributions to the global mitigation needed. Identifying a goal for the agriculture sector can then show whether mitigation plans are on track.

We estimated that even if all other sectors play their part, non-CO2 emissions in agriculture would need to be reduced by one gigatonne per year by 2030, or 11-18% in 2030, to make the 2°C limit achievable. This is a conservative indicator of the effort needed, as the reduction in emissions by 2050 would need to be about twice as much and by 2100 three to four times as much.

But analysis of the mitigation options currently available to farmers shows that we are currently only capable of achieving between 21-40% of this one gigatonne per year target in 2030. The agriculture sector is falling far short of what is required to slow global warming. We need a much bigger menu of technical and policy solutions, with major investment to bring them to scale globally. Ensuring that agricultural emissions are reduced while ensuring enough food is grown for the growing global population will require emissions-efficient farming at unprecedented scales.

Farmers presently lack the technology and finance needed for more ambitious action to reduce future agricultural emissions.  Promising technical innovations on the horizon include breeds of cattle that produce less methane and recently developed methane inhibitors that reduce dairy cow emissions by 30% without affecting milk yields. New varieties of maize and wheat that require less fertilizer and therefore reduce the nitrous oxide released from the soil into the atmosphere also are being developed.

Policy action will be needed to support these changes.  Innovative ways of valuing mitigation through the sale of green bonds or auctions of the future value of emissions reductions would create incentives for more GHG emission-efficient practices. Using public finance from the Green Climate Fund to reduce the risk to private financial investors of supporting new agricultural practices will be important to channel the finance needed. Promoting government, corporate and supply chain incentives to meet sustainability standards that include mitigation also could play a key role in scaling up practices across entire administrative jurisdictions, or within a corporation or supply chain.  The Paris Agreement provides mechanisms for finance and technology transfer that will be developed in coming years.  Including adaptation and mitigation in agriculture in these mechanisms from the start will enable quicker action.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, millions more farmers could contribute to mitigation if they had access to the finance, inputs and technical assistance needed to develop locally relevant mitigation options. Making more information available to farmers’ organizations and value chain actors will be vital via cell-phone technologies such as Nutrient Manager and web-based information portals such as the CCAFS on-line guide to climate smart agriculture. Use of tools such as the Greenseeker to more accurately assess crop’s nitrogen fertilizer needs can reduce excessive use of fertilizers, saving farmers’ money and improving their yields, while minimizing emissions.

While our study looks at non-CO2 emissions from agriculture, we suggest that targets are also needed to transparently assess the mitigation action needed throughout the food system, including sequestering soil carbon, increasing agroforestry, avoiding agricultural-driven deforestation, decreasing food loss and waste and shifting dietary patterns.

This study is an important first step to moving the new climate agreement from ambition to action. But much more work needs to be done. By setting sectoral targets, particularly for agriculture, we stand a much better chance of the promises signed in Paris achieving their final aims.

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