In December 2015, international leaders will come together in Paris to endeavor to agree global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets up to the year 2030 as part of an overall effort to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
For agriculture, these talks must not repeat past mistakes. A new approach must be developed – one which puts food security and resource stresses such as water availability at the centre of agricultures’ response to climate change.
The agriculture sector must also receive full emission reduction credit for carbon sequestration activity in agricultural soils, forestry and bioenergy when emissions from the sector are being reported.
Food security & climate change – the dual challenges
Feeding the world while addressing climate change is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. The world’s population, which reached 7 billion in 2011, is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Agricultural production will need to increase by an estimated 70%, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, with strong demand projected for commodities such as milk and meat. Ireland’s grass-based production systems provide a measurable carbon efficient model of food production, with among the lowest GHG emissions in Europe per unit of production.
Impact of resource stress on food production
Not all regions in the world are in a position to sustainably increase food production to meet this demand. Many parts of the world suffer from resource stress and are, therefore, not in a position to increase food production.
The United Nations predicts a 40% worldwide water shortfall and a 55% increase in demand for water within the next 15 years. This is not just a developing world issue, the European Environment Agency reports that 18% of Europe’s population lives in countries that are water stressed.
Climate policy must support carbon efficient food production
Increased international greenhouse gas emissions must be avoided by ensuring climate policy does not displace carbon efficient food produced in regions such as Europe by less sustainable food produced in tropical or other regions where carbon sequestering forests are cleared to support cattle rearing.
Europe’s recognition of agriculture’s many roles is basis for global agreement
In Europe, there are positive signs that policy makers now recognise the many requirements from the agricultural sector. This can provide a path to a successful international climate agreement in Paris.
In October 2014, the Heads of Government agreed an EU-wide position on climate change, which importantly includes a new policy framework for how agriculture should be treated in the climate debate. This recognises that agriculture is different and that, in addition to emitting carbon, the sector also has a positive impact on the environment. It acknowledges that agriculture has many responsibilities, not only the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. These responsibilities include food and fuel production, energy production and environmental protection – all of which must be considered when addressing the climate challenge.
The global response of the sector to the climate challenge in Paris this December must evolve towards sustainable production and better management of resources.
Agriculture’s carbon sequestration potential must be fully recognised
Agriculture deserves credit for its impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by including the carbon sequestration potential of agricultural soils, forestry and bioenergy. Agriculture’s positive contribution needs to be recognised in the international talks when assessing greenhouse gas emissions from the sector. For example, internationally the mitigation potential of agricultural soils is between 1 and 4 billion tonnes of CO2/year.