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Which sector has a huge potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions?

Answer: Agriculture.

A landscape showing a tree integration system, part of climate change mitigation practices for farms. Photo credit: ICRAF

A landscape showing a tree integration system, part of climate change mitigation practices for farms. Photo credit: ICRAF

According to the most recent UNEP Emissions Gap report, climate change adaptation and mitigation in the agriculture sector has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 1.1 – 4.3 gigatons (gt) by 2020.

Given that, “we are undermining our capacity to provide for ourselves in the future if we don’t include agriculture in climate change agreements”, says Henry Neufeldt who is the Head of the Climate Change Unit at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). It is an important step to include, for the first time, a chapter on agriculture in the most recent publication of the Emissions Gap Report (2013).

This chapter, for which Neufeldt is a leading author, recognizes the potential opportunities for agricultural innovations and technology to contribute to global climate change adaptation and mitigation. In addition to which agriculture can also provide diverse benefits to people and to ecosystems, while under pressure from a rapidly changing climate and a rapidly increasing human population.

The UNEP Emissions Gap Report is an annual synthesis report that was showcased at a side-event at the 19th Conference of Parties (COP 19) in Warsaw, Poland. The event, held on November 13th, 2013, featured two panels with four speakers each representing international policy and research institutions.

This year’s Report presents a somber analysis of the global state of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The report concludes that efforts must have a target of staying within a 2ºC temperature increase by the end of the century in order to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference[s] with the climate system” .

For this, the report says global emissions must be limited to around 44 gigatons (gt) by 2020. This is significantly lower than a business-as-usual scenario, which would result in 59gt by 2020 and would put us on a warming path to 3 – 4ºC by 2100. The difference between the two estimates is the emissions gap, and global efforts to reduce emissions from all sectors are needed to close, or at least significantly reduce, this gap.

The urgency to reduce emissions is compounded by the issue that merely pledging to reduce emissions will not be enough, and a number of additional efforts are required to stay within the 2ºC target. Namely, 1) rules should be tightened around the pledges to reduce the number of loopholes; and 2) the scope of pledges must be expanded.

Indeed, according to the panel, expanding the scope of the pledges will likely offer the greatest reductions in carbon emissions.

This, for instance, is where the agricultural sector offers a huge opportunity to contribute to global emissions-reducing efforts. Efforts through low-emissions agricultural technologies such as no-till practices, and nutrient and water management of rice and agroforestry farming have been identified as accessible and impactful solutions in the report, as evidenced by ICRAF’s research on water management and its work on conservation agriculture with trees in the West African Sahel.

Despite the agricultural technologies currently available, the accessibility of these technologies for smallholder farmers is frequently impeded by financial and knowledge-sharing barriers, and as Neufeldt pointed out,

“There is a need for a coordinated mix of policy to engage all actors, and it’s important to provide financial incentives for farmers to invest in new climate-smart technologies”.

Government contributions to climate-smart agriculture technologies, in the form of subsidies and tax breaks for instance, would require local- and national-level policy changes, and agencies would facilitate the knowledge- and resource-sharing requirements of implementing climate-smart agriculture practices.

Clearly, if global GHG emissions need to reduce to 44gt by 2020, a concerted effort to include all sectors, particularly agriculture, in climate change adaptation and mitigation is needed to ensure we are on track to reach this goal and prevent future temperatures from rising. We have a choice to meet our climate targets, and that choice is becoming easier to make.

Indeed as noted during the side-event, “development can equal climate mitigation, and this can increase climate-well being for everyone.” – Joseph Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


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