Turning grasslands into forest is an effective strategy to bind carbon, though not uncontroversial. Photo: Flickr.com / RuralMatters CC BY-NC

In pursuit of net-zero farming

Slashing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is a tricky balancing act: we will need to use all the tools available, while making sure we do not sacrifice other environmental interests along the way.

Two recent reports deal with the issue of aligning the agricultural sector with the target to achieve carbon neutrality in the European Union by 2050. First out was “Net-zero agriculture by 2050: How to get there”, by the Brussels based think tank, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). They start by giving a review of 60 existing scenarios from 18 different studies. Most of them achieve emission reductions in the range of 35–55 per cent by 2030 or 2050. In other words, far from a target of net-zero emissions.

Further, they note that there are some general alternatives available to achieve carbon neutrality for the agricultural sector:

  1. Changing the way agricultural commodities are produced to increase the per unit greenhouse gas efficiency of production
  2. Changing what the sector produces to move towards commodities that have a lower greenhouse gas footprint
  3. Increasing the carbon sequestration potential on agricultural land

There is a risk that the positive impacts of the first approach could be offset by increased production, often referred to as the rebound effect or Jevons paradox. On the other hand, the second approach must be followed by changes in consumption, otherwise there is a risk that carbon-intensive products will be imported from other parts of the world, resulting in carbon leakage.
In contrast to the other two approaches the third approach does not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but rather the impact they have, by removing and storing carbon in the soil or in biomass. This approach includes different production practices that store more carbon in the soil, changes in agricultural systems e.g. from cropland to grassland and afforestation of previous agricultural land.  

By combining these three alternatives in different ways they set up four scenarios:

A. Efficiency improvements and carbon sequestration with no major land use changes (option 1 + option 3 light)
B. Production changes and carbon sequestration with no major land use changes (option 2 + option 3 light)
C. Efficiency improvements, production changes and carbon sequestration with no major land use change (option 1 + option 2 + option 3 light
D. Efficiency improvements, production changes and carbon sequestration with major land use change (option 1 + option 2 + option 3 full)

The efficiency improvements included intensification of livestock production, increased crop yields of 30 per cent and improved waste collection (option 1). The production changes come with a 10 per cent reduction in calories, 75 reduction in meat consumption, and a lower share of bovine meat (option 2). Carbon sequestration in the first three scenarios implies that freed-up land is converted (option 3 light). In the final scenario, 80 per cent of freed-up land is turned into forest (option 3 full).

Scenario A had the lowest potential, with only 10 per cent emission reductions by 2050. Scenarios B and C were in the same range as most of the scenarios in the review, with 33 per cent and 46 per cent emission reductions by 2050. Scenario D was the only one that came anywhere close to the zero-emission target, with 80 per cent emission cuts. This indicates that using all tools available is the only way forward if the aim is carbon neutrality.

Taking a different starting point, namely that of agroecology, in a recent report the French research institute IDDRI also examines how agriculture can contribute to a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050.

Last year they launched a scenario called TYFA, which is an attempt to model a widespread adoption of agroecological practices across Europe, entailing a phasing-out of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and the redeployment of extensive grasslands and landscape infrastructure. This involves the adoption of “healthy diets”, which in this case means a drop in total calories by 6 per cent, slashing consumption of pork and poultry meat by almost two-thirds, and an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption by half.

However, this approach only leads to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of around 40 per cent.

The institute also developed a scenario that they call TYFA-GHG, in which the main assumptions are the same, but where they further reduce bovine numbers and allow for more biogas production. These two actions reduce emissions by a further 7 percentage points. This is still within the range of most scenarios in the IEEP review.

IDDRI argues that although their approach does not come close to carbon neutrality, it has several advantages. Measures included in the scenarios, such as eliminating pesticides, conserving semi-natural grasslands and setting aside land for agroecological infrastructures (hedgerows, grass strips, grasslands, thickets etc.) will all have a significantly positive contribution to biodiversity. They also assert that their low-tech scenario could increase adaptation capacity by increasing the level of diversity in agricultural landscapes and improving soil organic matter.

They also dispute the potential for improvements in efficiency that are assumed in several previous scenarios.

After reading these two reports, it is clear that there is currently no plan of action that shows how agriculture can be transformed to fit into a zero-carbon future. Nevertheless, steps need to be taken right now. The IEEP suggests an emission reductions hierarchy in an analogy of the waste reduction hierarchy (see box).

They also suggest that “the perceived high cost and ‘special nature’ of agriculture” that has so far been used an argument against climate action in the sector should be reviewed. They add that in order for the agriculture sector to contribute to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century, it needs to be target driven. Policy should facilitate for farms to make a transition and make low-carbon choices a norm.

In line with the IDDRI concerns, they also call for the need to define “truly synergetic measures that benefit both the climate and wider environmental goals” as well as developing “carbon farming schemes that build on results”.

They conclude that “transforming the sector will take time, requiring long-term investment and commitments at all levels”.

Kajsa Pira

“Net-zero agriculture in 2050: How to get there” by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) https://ieep.eu/publications/net-zero-agriculture-in-2050-how-to-get-there
 “Agroecology and carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050: what are the issues?” by Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI) https://www.iddri.org/en/publications-and-events/study/agroecology-and-c...

Agricultural emission reductions hierarchy

  1. Avoiding emissions where possible. Changing the types of commodities produced, reducing the consumption of livestock and other carbon-intensive products, and eliminating food waste;
  2. Reducing emissions where they cannot be avoided. Increasing the resource-efficiency of production, lowering the per-unit GHG emissions of a commodity, producing seasonally and in the most optimal conditions in Europe, and reducing harvesting waste;
  3. Recovery of emissions where possible. Increasing the sequestration potential on land to build carbon sequestration into standard production practices and ensuring its continued and permanent management on agricultural land. Developing circular-bio-economies that recover post-consumption and production nutrients, energy and materials as inputs to the sector, reducing the need for new inputs. Future agriculture must be different from that of today, sufficiently transformed to enable its contribution to combatting climate change and the delivery of net-zero emissions, while providing adequate nutrition and other ecosystem services to an increasingly global society.



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