5 Questions About Agricultural Emissions Answered
By Aleksandra Arcipowska, Emily Mangan, You Lyu and Richard Waite
Agriculture provides a livelihood for billions of people every day and feeds all of us. Yet food production has significant impacts on the environment through deforestation and water pollution. It's also a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.
As countries work to cut their emissions overall, agricultural emissions need to fall, too. To better understand agriculture's relationship with global emissions, we took a closer look at the data, using Climate Watch to answer five important questions.
1. What causes agricultural emissions?
The majority of agricultural production emissions come from raising livestock. More than 70 billion animals are raised annually for human consumption. The biggest single source is methane from cow burps and manure. Enteric fermentation—a natural digestive process that occurs in ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats—accounts for about 40% of agricultural production emissions in the past 20 years.
Manure left on pasture also causes agricultural emissions. It emits nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a much stronger global warming impact per ton than carbon dioxide. These two processes from animal agriculture produce more than half of total agricultural production emissions. Rice cultivation and synthetic fertilizers are also major sources, each contributing more than 10% of agricultural production emissions.
While we focus on agricultural production emissions in this blog post, it's important to remember that agriculture is also a leading driver of land-use change (for example through the conversion of forests to croplands or pasture). Recent WRI research estimated that agriculture and land-use change collectively accounted for nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.
2. What’s agriculture’s role in global and national emissions?
Emissions from agricultural production currently account for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions and have risen 14% since 2000.
In 24 countries around the world, agriculture is the top source of emissions.
3. Which countries are responsible for the most agricultural production emissions?
In the 20-year period from 1996-2016, China was responsible for the most emissions from agricultural production, followed by India, Brazil and the United States. Together, these top four agricultural emitters were responsible for 37% of global agricultural production emissions.
Since 2000, China and India's agricultural production emissions have increased by 16% and 14%, respectively (see: figure 3). In terms of per capita agricultural emissions, the top three countries are Australia, Argentina and Brazil.
4. What will agricultural emissions look like in the future?
Agriculture will likely continue to be a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing countries.
With little to no climate action in the agriculture sector, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production could increase 58% by 2050. WRI research also showed that when factoring in land-use change, agricultural emissions under a business-as-usual scenario could eat up 70% or more of the world's "carbon budget," the amount of emissions the world can release by 2050 while still limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C. Under a more ambitious mitigation scenario called RCP2.6, emissions from the agricultural sector will still increase, but only by 6% (compared to 2000).
WRI also analyzed an even more ambitious "breakthrough technologies" scenario—with changes in technology, policies and practices from farm to plate—that would reduce agricultural production emissions by 40% between 2010 and 2050 and increase carbon removal from the atmosphere with vast amounts of reforestation. Such measures would require enormous amounts of investment and effort, but they are necessary for keeping warming to 1.5 degrees C, the limit scientists say is necessary for preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change.
5. What are countries doing to reduce agricultural emissions?
Emissions from agricultural production can be addressed by improving production and consumption patterns. WRI's recent research points to a five-course "menu of solutions" to feed 10 billion people by 2050 while reducing agricultural emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
On the production side, boosting yields of crops and livestock through sustainable intensification can reduce emissions per unit of food produced and greatly relieve pressure on the world's remaining forests. A suite of technological innovations, including feed additives that reduce enteric fermentation, "nitrification inhibitors" that reduce nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer, and lower-emissions rice varieties could all reduce emissions while maintaining yields.
Consumption can be more efficient by reducing food loss and waste and by shifting diets in wealthier countries away from emissions-intensive products like beef and toward plant-based foods.
This movement has already begun, but it needs to accelerate. Climate Watch allows users to explore all countries' climate commitments, or NDCs, and see which include action in agriculture. Out of 197 Parties to the Paris Agreement, 75 have committed to mitigation actions and 116 have committed to adaptation actions within the agricultural sector. Top emitting countries like China and India have submitted sector-specific adaptation plans that cover areas including food security, irrigation, land and soil management, and agroforestry. Other countries aim to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane through their NDCs. Japan, for example, has proposed measures to reduce methane emissions from agricultural soils and rice paddies.
With new agriculture data on Climate Watch, users can explore for themselves the drivers of agricultural emissions and see what countries have committed to do under the Paris Agreement. Visit the tool here.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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