Although UNFCCC negotiations on agriculture are on hold, agricultural mitigation is already an objective for many developing countries.
Although UNFCCC negotiations on agriculture are on hold, agricultural mitigation is already an objective for many developing countries. National governments are moving quickly to plan agricultural development that also leads to climate change adaptation and mitigation, which is crucial in a sector that is so vulnerable to climate impacts, but also responsible for 14 to 24% of global emissions. As a result, new policy mechanisms and tools are being put into use with some promising, recent developments.
Agriculture already features prominently in many countries’ national mitigation plans. Since agriculture is one of the largest sources of emissions for many non-Annex I countries, mitigation can enable countries access international funds for agricultural development, as well as contribute to meeting national emissions targets. Mitigation activities could also help countries become more economically competitive by increasing efficiency. According to a recent review by Andreas Wilkes, Timm Tennigkeit and Katalin Solymosi, 30 countries have already proposed 62 agricultural Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). Twenty-one NAMAs related to agricultural mitigation have been officially submitted. The authors also identify countries with low emissions development plans and agricultural policies that yield mitigation benefits, such as reducing conversion of forests and grasslands. The potential mitigation impacts are significant. Brazil, for example, expects to save 16-20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) through no-till farming and 83-104 megatonnes of CO2e by restoring grazing land by 2020.
But policy makers need better information and tools to identify the practices likely to yield the most technical impact for different regions and site conditions. Hillier et al. provide an example of how this could be done. The authors developed a decision support tool to assess how well different nitrogen and carbon management measures reduce emissions. They showed where different measures were likely to be most important depending on what kind of agricultural practices were already predominant. By optimizing mitigation by region and conditions, the authors were able to identify opportunities for reducing emissions by 45%.
To inform priorities for mitigation in agriculture, better data is also needed, especially for developing countries. Much of our current data is from the temperate world or otherwise drawn from a small number of sites or from poor and inconsistent sources. Quantifying greenhouse gases (GHGs) for complex and diverse smallholder systems is especially challenging. Work is therefore currently underway to improve methods for in situ measurements for GHGs and carbon stocks for smallholder farms, including identifying mitigation options that do not compromise food production.
The good news is that we have many of the tools and approaches to better quantify GHGs and even sensible approaches for combining modeling, remote sensing and field measurements to reduce costs. Now we just need a common framework for collecting data globally. Improved targeting and coordination of GHG quantification in the next three to five years could dramatically improve our ability to identify mitigation options. It could also support more cost-effective methods for quantifying emissions in the future. To support better coordination, researchers have synthesized what is currently known about practices for quantifying agricultural GHGs and outlined a vision for supporting policy makers in developing countries who seek accurate and cost-effective methods to report on GHG stocks and emissions.
In addition to better data on emissions, projections of alternative low emissions development pathways can help guide policy decisions now. Mitigation options ultimately need to be driven by development needs, including food security and adapting to climate change impacts. Lobell et al. examined how adaptation—using the example of intensified agriculture under future climate regimes—can reduce deforestation and thus emissions from land-use change. The study found that intensification reduced emissions in more cost effective ways than investments in activities focused on mitigation.
The dialogue has shifted. The question is no longer whether to discuss mitigation in agriculture, but rather how we can implement agricultural mitigation. Private and public investors in agriculture are increasingly asking how they can tackle climate change in all its dimensions. The tools and methods are there, and the data is improving. Decision makers, especially national policy-makers, are asking for information and even proposing official NAMAs. As negotiators, scientists and development practitioners gather this week for the UNFCCC’s SBSTA meeting in Bonn, we must make the most of opportunities to discuss country needs and share concrete options for further action.