Climate mitigation in agriculture is necessary, achievable and can benefit the sector in the process

Agriculture, alongside the forest sector, has a unique role to play as part of the EU’s efforts on climate change. In addition to its potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through changes in land management, it can also contribute to the removal of atmospheric CO2 by sequestering carbon in soils, trees and other vegetation. This gives the sector the potential to reduce its own emissions, assist other sectors in meeting their targets and thus the economy as a whole.

The sector is far from reaching this potential and evidence from studies produced by European Commission shows that very few GHG reductions are to be expected as a result of current policy action. Policy makers and the sector are concerned that actions required are too expensive and would reduce the sector’s competitiveness at the global level. Some also argue that the agricultural sector has a lower mitigation potential than other sectors because some approaches to mitigate climate change can impact agricultural production.

These are valid concerns, yet our research sheds light on the untapped potential both to the sector, to the climate and to the environment of taking action in the agriculture sector in the short, medium and longer term. A report by IEEP found that there is ample scientific and economic evidence showing that no- and low-cost mitigation actions exist but their potential is not being realised. Many actions beneficial to the climate can actually lead to efficiency gains, help farmers reduce their cost expenditure, while having little or no impact on production. Beyond its productive function, agriculture plays a number of other roles in society, including managing natural resources and supporting rural communities and employment. When climate action is implemented with the right supporting conditions in place (e.g. making sure that afforestation does not occur on environmentally important grassland), it can deliver wider environmental benefits. For example, using catch and cover crops after harvest can help reduce nitrous oxide emissions, reduce the need for fertilisers in the next crop while improving water quality by reducing leaching of nutrients into water courses as well as improving soil structure and function. Many other such ‘triple win’ actions exist and are straightforward to implement, e.g. planting or maintaining existing farmland trees, optimising feeding strategies for livestock or properly implementing soil and nutrient management plans.

Today, however, climate action in the farming sector lags behind. Over time, as other sectors continue to reduce emissions, the agriculture sector will face increasing pressure to reduce emissions and fulfil its mitigation potential in the economy as a whole to meet increasingly demanding emission reduction targets put in place to meet the Paris Agreement commitments.

Perhaps the largest challenge when it comes to implementing climate action in agriculture is the fact that action is required from the many millions of farmers across the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), particularly rural development policy, provides the tools needed to help achieve this in terms of advice, training, investments, agri-environment and climate payments, etc. should Member States choose to do so. However, IEEP’s report on the consequences of climate change for EU agriculture for the European Parliament has shown that to date, the majority of Member States have not made the most of the climate opportunities provided by the CAP. The budget allocated to climate objectives and their associated targets by Member States is generally very low, a conclusion echoed in a recent European Court of Auditors report.

The absence of any explicit GHG emission reduction targets for the agriculture sector creates little incentive to focus attention in this area. Therefore a long-term low emission strategy for the agricultural sector, which sets out the levels of emission reductions and removals to be achieved and by when, would help give clarity to farmers and Member States about the effort needed and set a clear ambition.

However, moving towards climate-smart production is only one part of the solution. To enable real transformative change to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 also requires consumption to become more sustainable, through tackling issues like food waste and moving towards more sustainable diets.

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PUBLICATION DATE

21 Aug 2017

AUTHOR

Anne Maréchal, Ben Allen, Kaley Hart