How to cut agriculture’s emissions to achieve a just transition

Adam Fuseina works on her farm in Nafaring village, northern Ghana,  October 8, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

Adam Fuseina works on her farm in Nafaring village, northern Ghana, October 8, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

How do we mitigate emissions in the agriculture sector without compromising the lives and livelihoods of small-scale producers in the Global South?

Aditi Mukherji is Director, Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Impact Area Platform, CGIAR

Elon Musk recently courted controversy when he tweeted that agriculture has no meaningful impact on climate change.

The reality, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is that agriculture, forestry, and land use contribute 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Taking into account broader food systems, which include processing, transport, and consumer behaviour in addition to food production, the sector accounts for up to one third of total emissions

The evidence is clear: without emissions reductions in the agriculture and food sectors, the world cannot achieve the 1.5°C warming goals in the Paris Agreement. 

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What is less straightforward is how to reduce agricultural emissions without further widening existing inequalities that mean smallholder farmers are most likely to be poor, hungry and malnourished.

Emerging literature shows that adopting the most ambitious measures to reduce agricultural emissions could compromise food security and increase hunger due to food price increases, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

These regions have the bulk of smallholder producers, who are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, in addition to the nearly 700 million people who are already severely malnourished.

This puts us in a bind: we must bring down emissions in the agriculture sector, but doing so without due caution risks making some of the most vulnerable smallholder producers and consumers in the world even more vulnerable. This would be in direct contravention of the Paris Agreement.

The key question at the heart of the climate change debate today is therefore: how do we mitigate emissions in the agriculture sector without compromising the lives and livelihoods of small-scale producers in the Global South? This conundrum is central to the growing debate around a “just transition” to net zero.

No easy solutions, but a menu of options

In some sectors, climate technologies and solutions are readily available and widely applicable, for example, decarbonizing electricity grids through clean energy, or electric vehicles in the transport sector. 

But the agriculture sector presents a complex landscape of different production systems, different consumer preferences and different food processing and transportation networks, with varying degrees of food loss and waste across entire value chains. 

This complex landscape means solutions must be context-specific, and require careful consideration of trade-offs and mutual benefits before and during implementation. 

Despite such complexity, research provides a menu of good, interconnected options for reducing emissions within food systems. These include halting deforestation, shifting to sustainable, healthy diets, reducing food loss and waste, and improving crop yields. 

Halting deforestation is a win-win option for emissions reductions, biodiversity conservation, and protecting the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. But while more than 100 countries pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, recent numbers show that deforestation has surged. Much of this deforestation is for producing food, mostly beef. Shifting to healthier plant-based options in high-income nations where meat consumption is unsustainably high can potentially help cut annual agricultural production emissions by 61% while storing more carbon. 

Increasing crop and animal productivity while reducing food loss and waste can also bridge the nutritional gap, result in 42% fewer emissions compared to business-as-usual production patterns. This also reduces deforestation, showing that win-win actions in this sector are still possible. CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly-funded agricultural research partnership, has played a crucial role in improving crop yields for the last 50 years across the Global South. Without improved yields, global deforestation for growing food would have been much higher.

Net-zero agriculture, but trade-offs must be addressed

Some studies show that achieving net-zero emissions in food systems by 2050 is feasible. But solutions must be contextualised and smallholder producers adequately supported to prevent trade-offs between food security among smallholder producers and emissions reductions. 

For example, targeted interventions at the farm and production levels can decrease emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by up to 84% by 2050, provided smallholder farmers receive adequate training and finance. Similarly, a study by CGIAR scientists shows that full adoption of the most effective strategies to mitigate methane emissions from ruminant livestock can help keep within 1.5°C targets by 2030. Agroecological approaches can further reduce emissions by increasing soil carbon storage. 

Finally, investing in emerging technologies that are expected to mature and become cost-effective in the coming years, such as green ammonia and nano-fertilisers, and deploying digital services such as precision agriculture technologies, remote sensing, and data-driven decision-making tools can also help reduce emissions in agriculture.

It is clear, then, that achieving our climate goals will require substantial and targeted investments into transforming food systems, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

While high-income countries and industrialised production systems must prioritise emissions reductions and dietary shifts, low- and middle-income countries urgently need investment into climate technologies, capacity building, and finance support to move to low emissions pathways. 

By embracing these strategies, we can mitigate emissions in agriculture, promote food security, and empower small-scale producers to ensure a more resilient future for us all.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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