Get Ready to Mitigate
If a stable global climate is to be attained, agriculture, notably agriculture in the developing world, will play a pivotal role. Research and development are critical to meeting these and other challenges, as well as to grasping opportunities.
Why are emissions from agriculture in focus?
There are three big reasons:
- Emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) are too large to ignore. AFOLU accounted for about 21% of global emissions from all sources in 2018. By comparison, electricity generation accounted for not quite 24%.
- AFOLU is currently the only sector with serious potential to become a net emissions sink — pulling more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it emits. This makes AFOLU pivotal to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century.
This point merits some elaboration. Even with strenuous efforts to limit emissions, other major emitting sectors (energy systems, industry, transport and buildings) are likely to generate positive emissions in 2050. For example, a share of the current stock of industrial equipment and buildings is likely to be functioning and emitting in 2050. To offset these emissions, emissions must go negative somewhere else. In the absence of a very rapid advance in technologies, such as direct air carbon capture and storage, the burden of achieving substantial negative emissions will fall on AFOLU. This burden is potentially large. Suppose, for simplicity, that all sectors other than AFOLU reduce emissions by 90% relative to 2018 levels by 2050. To attain the net zero by 2050 target affirmed at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), AFOLU must then eliminate all current emissions and absorb an amount equivalent to about 8% of 2018 total emissions, making for a total shift of approximately 29% of 2018 total emissions. Viewed in this way, AFOLU has significantly larger emissions reduction goals than electricity generation.
- Agriculture is a major source of methane emissions, principally via enteric fermentation (ruminant burps) and rice cultivation. Methane is a very powerful but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas, breaking down in the atmosphere after about 10-12 years. Hence, efforts to reduce methane emissions in the 2020s slows warming in the 2030s. This is the motivation behind the methane pledge, which was a major focus of COP26. The 111 signatory nations agree to “take voluntary actions to contribute to a collective effort to reduce global methane emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.”
Why are developing countries crucial?
More than 70% of AFOLU emissions come from the global south, representing about 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions (once again, too big to ignore). Globally, land use change represents not quite half of all AFOLU emissions, with agricultural expansion being the major driver of this component. From 2003 to 2019, cropland area increased by 9% worldwide; however, this expansion took place almost entirely in the developing world with Africa and South America representing not quite two-thirds of the total expansion in area.
Enteric fermentation and rice cultivation are, as noted above, sources of methane. They are also substantial contributors to global emissions, accounting for about 34% of AFOLU emissions, or about 7% of global total emissions. Most of these emissions emanate from the developing world.
The way forward
A key point is that reducing emissions is only one element of the many challenges confronting food systems. With respect to livelihoods, the food system is currently the world’s largest “employer”. However, for billions of people, earning a livelihood in the food system translates into very low and precarious incomes, with women and disadvantaged groups often more vulnerable. To achieve acceptable and resilient livelihoods, we must continue to leverage the demonstrated ability of food systems to improve livelihoods, as well as inclusion, for billions of people.
With respect to natural habitats, food systems drive about 60% of global biodiversity loss. As emphasized at the recently concluded United Nations Food Systems Summit, we want a far more nature-positive food system. With respect to nutrition, we now know that about 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet.
Hence, the expectations of the food system over the course of the next 30 years are high: shift from a major source of emissions to a major sink, improve livelihoods for billions, shift from the largest driver of biodiversity loss to nature-positive status and produce not just the calories but also the micronutrients and dietary diversity that constitute a healthy diet — at an affordable price. All of this must be accomplished in the context of a rapidly changing climate.
Meeting these high expectations requires a large and broad-based innovation push that is based on evidence and research. Research-based innovations were an essential piece of the reductions in poverty, hunger and malnutrition of the past 50 years and will be equally important for meeting today’s challenges.
This included institutional innovations. Just as a very low emissions power system will not emerge with 20th century policies and institutions that were tailored to an era of fossil fuels, new policies, innovative governance arrangements and reformed institutions in AFOLU and food systems are indispensable. To give one example related to emissions, current policies, institutions and governance mechanisms will not succeed in channeling the large public and private investments in AFOLU and food systems required to transform the sector from a major emitter to a major sink.
In sum, alongside developing and exploiting technical innovations, such as gene editing, distributed solar power and digital applications, the innovation push called for the above needs to include innovations in policy, governance and institutions.