Rethink needed on cutting agricultural emissions

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The agricultural industry needs to globally cut its emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases by about 1 billion tonnes a year by 2030 to help achieve the goals set at COP21 in Paris, according to findings from international scientists including a New Zealander. However, the researchers say that since current options wouldn't even reach half of this required reduction, new and additional solutions will be needed.

Journal/conference: Global Change Biology

Organisation/s: New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Reseach Centre

Media Release

From: NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre

Global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture should be reduced by 1 gigatonne in 2030, but less than half of this is possible with current options – international study

A global team of scientists, including one from New Zealand, has estimated that emissions of non- CO2 greenhouse gases from agriculture should be reduced by about 1 gigatonne (1 billion tonnes) annually by 2030 to help achieve the goals set at last year’s global climate change conference in Paris. The Paris conference confirmed a long-term goal of limiting warming from climate change to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The authors of the study argue that focusing emissions reductions only on sectors such as energy and transport (where emissions will need to be reduced close to zero well before the end of the century) would be insufficient to meet the temperature goal set by the new climate agreement. They say that agriculture must also play its part, proposing that the global institutions concerned with agriculture and food security set a sectoral emissions target for agriculture linked to the 2°C warming limit. Yet their detailed analysis revealed a major gap between the existing mitigation options for the agriculture sector and the reductions needed: currently and readily available interventions would only deliver between 21-40% of the mitigation required.

Dr Andy Reisinger, co-author of this study and Deputy Director of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), says the study serves as both a benchmark and wakeup call. “More than one hundred countries have indicated in their national climate change targets that they would like to reduce emissions from agriculture, but few have a clear plan for how to achieve this or how much they can achieve. We know that increasing the adoption of best practices for efficient and productive farm systems is a key element, but these alone are not enough. It will take much more coordinated efforts between national and global institutions concerned with agriculture and food security to make the progress that is needed.”

Dr Reisinger says that the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA), a voluntary international initiative instigated by New Zealand, is making important contributions to this goal. “For many developing countries, food security, not greenhouse gas mitigation, is an overriding concern. Our work in the GRA is focussed on demonstrating that there are important synergies between increasing the productivity and efficiency of their farm systems and reducing the emissions per unit of food they produce. The more we can engage those countries in a conversation that encompasses both those elements, the better we can ensure that there is enough food to feed the planet without putting the planet itself at serious risk.”

With support from the New Zealand Government, the NZAGRC is working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation in a United Nations sponsored project to identify regionally tailored ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from key livestock systems through increasing productivity an efficiency. Current focus areas are the southern cone of South America, East and West Africa, and South Asia. An extension of this approach is planned to South-East Asia.

But even with increased efficiency gains, Dr Reisinger says, new and additional solutions to reduce emissions without compromising food security will be needed. The government-funded NZAGRC is working in partnership with the industry-government joint venture, the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, to develop additional ways for farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. This includes the identification of naturally lower emitting animals for targeted breeding, development of animal-safe compounds that can suppress the generation of methane in the rumen of animals, and searching for ways to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide and to increase the amount of carbon stored in pastoral soils.

Dr Harry Clark, Director of the NZAGRC and Co-Chair of the Livestock Research Group of the GRA,says that this study supports the approach that New Zealand has adopted for reducing agricultural GHG emissions. Improvements in production efficiency are a crucial component of reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions but they are not enough on their own, given the increasing global population and associated demand for food. Hence the NZAGRC and the PGgRc have focussed on the development of new technologies that can make a large contribution to reducing overall emissions from agriculture. “New Zealand, in a partnership between government, science and industry is at the forefront of developing such new technologies. If successfully developed and implemented, these technologies will have global as well as local impact and would make the type of contribution the authors point out is needed for the world to achieve the target it set in Paris”.


    Global-aspirational-goal-for-agriculture-NZAGRC-release.pdf, 197.2 KB

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Suzi Kerr, Senior Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research

These results boost the growing consensus that improvements in production efficiency and comprehensive adoption of new technologies within existing agricultural sectors are not sufficient to meet global climate targets. We also need to change diet, reduce waste and shift toward low emissions agriculture – away from sheep, cows, deer and goats.

Some will argue that reductions in methane do not need to happen as fast as these models suggest. Even if we do have longer to reduce methane emissions, however, achieving this kind of fundamental change without significant economic and social dislocation will take many years. Mobilising significant change now toward a long term vision of low emissions agriculture will make the transition easier.

New Zealand already has high levels of GHG-efficiency in agriculture by global standards.  That leaves us even less room to reduce in conventional ways – but also gives us the opportunity to show leadership in a new direction. Our scientists are leaders in the research effort to reduce emissions within the livestock sector. However, we also need to learn how to accelerate the rate of improvements within existing agricultural sectors and actively develop and trial alternative low emission products. This will contribute to a smooth transition for our agricultural sector, as well as developing knowledge that can help other countries. Ultimately the global goal is to produce high levels of nutrition with low emissions. 

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:04pm

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