Could farmers help pay Europe’s climate change mitigation bill?

If Europe’s policy-makers knew that agroforestry could be worth over 140,000 million euros in the European Union in 2030, would they be more likely to promote its adoption?

Three scientists from the Flemish Institute for Technological Research recently estimated the amount of carbon that could theoretically be sequestered via agroforestry in Europe and its potential value for society in a paper titled Valuing the carbon sequestration potential for European agriculture.

They found that agroforestry on arable land and pastures has a potential to sequester about 1409 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in the EU-27 (all European Union countries excluding Croatia) – a number that’s equals roughly 33% of all carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in the EU in 2007.

Take this sequestered carbon and convert it into monetary terms and the total potential value of applying agroforestry for the EU-27 is estimated to be 39,455 million euros in 2012 and 140,910 million euros in 2030.

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Sequestering carbon via agroforestry avoids more expensive climate change mitigation measures in other sectors. Photo courtesey of Let Ideas Compete.

These numbers are based on the costs savings associated with sequestering carbon via agroforestry, as opposed to resorting to costlier sequestration or emissions reductions measures in other sectors – such as energy, transportation or forestry – which would be required to meet long-term climate change policy objectives. Because more expensive measures will be needed to meet greenhouse gas emission targets over time, the value of sequestered carbon is also expected to rise dramatically, explain the authors.

Given the EU-27’s target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 – which equates to yearly emissions reductions of 1113 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020 – agroforestry’s high carbon sequestration potential should undoubtedly capture the attention of policy-makers.

Moreover, the scientists’ valuation of agroforestry doesn’t consider the additional benefits that come from these systems – including increased soil fertility and reduced soil erosion, pest control, increased biodiversity and aesthetic value. Agroforestry systems are more resilient to climate change than crop monocultures, helping farmers to manage climate-related risk. Additionally, the authors propose that by producing woody biomass, widespread agroforestry systems would reduce the EU’s global environmental impact tied to importing timber products.

Despite agroforestry’s enormous potential to sequester carbon, its attractive external value for society and the range of additional benefits it offers to farmers and Europe as a whole, the issue remaining is how to stimulate its uptake.

Agroforestry requires not only a high level of knowledge, but a willingness to sign on for decade-long changes to agricultural land – both of which can influence the decision to adopt. According to the authors, realizing agroforestry’s enormous potential will hinge on the incentive for farmers to adopt the practice.

In recent years, European policy-makers have begun to recognize the benefits of agroforestry and several countries currently support its adoption through rural development programmes. Nonetheless, the current level of support stands at 70% of the cost of the trees, “…only a small fraction of the societal value of agroforestry,” according to the paper.

For example, in Flanders, Belgium, support for adopting agroforestry is cut off at 1000 euros per hectare. Yet the authors show that the carbon sequestered by trees planted on one hectare of land today would have a total external value of roughly 13,600 euros by 2031.

The scientists argue that recognizing the monetary and additional benefits of agroforestry for society as a whole could give farmers a high incentive to adopt the practice. This could lead to widespread introduction of agroforestry, not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world and offer an opportunity for countries to increase their commitment to climate change mitigation.

Read/download the article: Valuing the carbon sequestration potential for European agriculture

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Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change

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