Ag must make big changes to reach climate goals, says report

Progress toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the goal of the Paris Agreement — is “highly insufficient,” “off-track,” “too slow,” and “inadequate” across almost every key sector: power, buildings, industry, transport, agriculture, and forests, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the ClimateWorks Foundation said Wednesday in their State of Climate Action report.

The world has already warmed 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, resulting in more intense storms, more frequent heat waves, droughts, and rising seas. With population and income growth expected to boost food demand 50 percent by 2050, agriculture can and must play a far more significant role in lowering the planet’s temperature, the report says. A recent spate of white papers, reports, and initiatives from a broad array of agricultural interests — corporate, legislative, nongovernmental, and farmers — suggests this sector may finally be poised to embrace its role in mitigating climate change. Globally, agriculture, forestry, and other kinds of land use account for 23 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

To forestall climate change while feeding a growing population, the report says, agriculture must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, which come from burning fossil fuels and spreading fertilizers, from raising livestock and producing rice. Emissions from agricultural production have been rising steadily since the 1960s, and they are projected to rise another 27 percent by 2050. According to WRI, these emissions, currently at about 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, must not only halt but then drop 39 percent by 2050, to near 4 gigatons.

To get there, farmers and ranchers will need to shrink their ecological footprint while producing ever more calories on the same amount of land, or less. Where output is low, producers must raise yields — through accelerated animal and crop breeding and improved feed quality, veterinary care, soil and water management, and grazing practices, including boosting stocking levels where appropriate. “Given the size of our challenge, we should be open to everything,” says Richard Waite, a senior research associate in WRI’s Food Program. “We can’t pick and choose climate solutions. We have to do it all.”

Other tactics include planting existing cropland more frequently; developing feed additives to reduce livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions (their methane-rich burps); managing both manure and synthetic fertilizer to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide; developing compounds, like Apeel, that delay food decomposition; and encouraging the shift to plant-based meat substitutes. The goal, of course, is not only to shrink emissions but to keep agriculture from expanding into forests, grasslands, and peatlands, which absorb huge amounts of carbon.

Slashing ag emissions will help keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, but to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the report says, deforestation must be halted. (Clearing forests for agriculture is still increasing in much of the world.) The report also calls for planting trees on 678 million hectares (2.6 million square miles) to help soak up the carbon that food production will continue to generate. The increased tree cover will remove a cumulative 7.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 over 2018 levels, and 75 gigatons by 2050.

The report suggests that those trees could be planted on the hundreds of millions of hectares that would be freed up as agriculture becomes more efficient. “Thirty percent of global pasture used to be forest,” Waite says. Those trees could be allowed to grow back.

Individuals have a role to play as well. If consumption of ruminants — cows, goats, sheep — in all regions of the world topped out at 52 kilocalories per person, per day (beef and lamb consumption in the U.S. is currently about 90 kilocalories per day), more than 500 million hectares of land would be spared. Beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of edible protein than plant proteins like beans, peas, and lentils.

Still, experts predict that consumption of animal-based foods will grow by nearly 70 percent between 2010 and 2050 — thanks to rising incomes in the developing world. And so the vast majority of those reductions, as a matter of equity, must come from high-consuming countries. What does 52 kilocalories of ruminant meat a day look like? About one and a half hamburgers a week.

Reducing food waste provides another opportunity to feed more people, relieve pressure on wildlands, and slash emissions. Currently the planet loses, at some point between the farm and the fork, about a third of all food produced annually. Cutting those losses by 50 percent — a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal — would reduce the demand for ag land by about 310 million hectares; save all the water, fuel, fertilizer and other inputs used to grow, harvest, and transport food that no one eats; and annually reduce emissions linked with land conversion by roughly 3 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (relative to “business as usual”). Slashing food waste also means sending less organic material to landfill, where it generates the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Halving the planet’s emissions by 2030 — and zeroing them out entirely by 2050 — will require new policies, incentives, and vast investment from the private sector, philanthropies, and governments, which already provide $600 billion a year in subsidies to nations that generate two-thirds of the world’s agriculture. That amount, Waite suggests, could be redirected to these types of solutions.

The report aims to help nations assess their progress in the Paris Climate Accord and develop future climate change goals. Late next year, representatives from around the world will gather in Scotland — or virtually — to update their nations’ pledges to combat climate change and refine their emissions strategies.

You can read the full report here.