Ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation in agriculture

A farmer plows a field with a ox plowClick to enlarge
Breaking with traditions – towards sustainable agriculture: How can this succeed?
Source: Christian Tietz / UBA

Climate protection in agriculture is complex: greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation to climate change, food security, biodiversity, land rights and land use conflicts all have to be considered together. In a research project, options and barriers for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture were analysed at the global level and for ten priority countries.

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Agriculture is responsible for the supply of food and provides livelihoods for many people worldwide. It thus plays a key role in achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the effects of global warming can lead to crop failures and threaten the livelihoods of a large number of people in rural areas.

At the same time, the agricultural sector is part of the problem: The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land Use estimates that a fifth to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to our food systems: 9-14 % are caused by crop and livestock production on farms, 5-14 % by land use, and 5-10 % by the food production value chain. Unlike other sectors, agricultural production is associated with GHG emissions from activities that cannot be decarbonized. For example, agricultural management of soils, digestive processes in ruminants, and storage of farm manure generate methane, nitrous oxide, and CO2 emissions. In addition, agricultural intensification and trends toward large-scale monocultures are also a major cause of biodiversity loss and pressure on water resources. The pressure on ecosystems is exacerbated primarily by the high and increasing consumption of animal products. Without a shift to a predominantly plant-based diet and the implementation of further climate change mitigation measures, it will not be possible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep the environmental impact of the food system within planetary boundaries.

To make the agricultural system sustainable, multiple goals must be pursued simultaneously: preserving ecosystems, mitigating greenhouse gases, adapting to global warming, and providing safe and healthy food for all.


Project goals

The research project has two main objectives:

  • Identifying and structuring options and barriers for mitigating GHG emissions in agriculture, and develop recommendations for action to overcome these barriers;
  • Evaluating barriers and options to overcome them in the context of 10 priority countries and developing scientific analysis on how to make these countries' National Determined Contributions (NDCs) more ambitious through concrete policies, measures and instruments for increased climate action in agriculture.

Agriculture in the context of UNFCCC negotiations

Agriculture is the only sector with its own substantive agenda item in the climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under the title "Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA)," both scientific and implementation aspects for mitigation and adaptation in agriculture are discussed. The agriculture sector also plays a significant role in countries' nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. However, few countries have quantified sector targets for emissions reductions in agriculture or land use. Therefore, the agriculture sector is also an important sector to consider when increasing ambition by updating NDCs. As part of the research project, the contractors supported UBA in administrative-logistical tasks related to the coordination of the EU thematic group on land use during the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020 and prepared background papers on land use-related processes under the UNFCCC as well as transnational financial transfers towards the agricultural sector.


Options and barriers for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture

Due to the relevance of the agricultural sector in terms of food security and the provision of food at socially acceptable prices, ambitious climate change mitigation demands have often been and continue to be avoided. In addition, there is limited technical mitigation potential, as agricultural production is per se associated with greenhouse gas emissions through its biological processes.
Thus, agriculture represents a complex system with a large variety of actors and very different conditions, contexts and needs in different countries. Even where options for increased climate change mitigation in agriculture are clearly evident, they are often not implemented.

The project team analysed a range of supply- and demand-side mitigation options to make agriculture and the global food system more sustainable.

Supply side mitigation options include more sustainable cultivation practices, better management of nitrogen fertilizers, improved management of farm manure, reducing emissions from livestock, increasing carbon storage in agricultural systems, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from rice production, and less burning of crop residues.

On the demand side, reducing food waste and loss, changing dietary habits, and the resulting reduction in deforestation were explored.

Implementation of these options faces institutional, policy, financial, sociocultural, technical, and biophysical barriers. The project team developed recommendations to overcome these barriers. Appropriate approaches to food systems development must be context-specific, as both farming systems and barriers to implementing mitigation approaches vary widely and are specific to local conditions.


Analyses for ten focus countries

The analyses on barriers and potentials for climate mitigation in the agricultural sector in general are applied to national contexts in order to identify concretely implementable approaches for more climate mitigation in agriculture in 10 selected focus countries. For Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States - the potential for ambitious climate mitigation in agriculture is analysed based on the literature. For each country, selected mitigation measures are considered in depth and quantified. Country papers will summarize these analyses and identify barriers to the implementation of mitigation options. Based on this, proposals for a more ambitious emissions reductions in the selected countries will be developed and instruments and measures for their implementation will be suggested. The results in the country papers explicitly will represent scientific research findings and should not be considered as recommendations for action for the countries studied.

The graphic shows barriers and recommendations for reducing GHG emissions in the agricultural sector
Barriers and recommendations for reducing GHG emissions in the agricultural sector
Source: Öko-Institut and NewClimate Institute infographic_barriers_in_agricultural_sector_with-disclaimer_eng.pdf
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 Global climate protection  GHG Mitigation Measures  agriculture  Greenhousegas Mitigation  NDCs