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Can We Make Good on the Paris Climate Agreement?

Maybe not, if we don’t address global agriculture emissions.

By Madeleine Thomas


(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Almost 120 countries pledged to reduce their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions following the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which developed a crucial threshold to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. Though the agreement sounds promising, those commitments may not be enough. Unless a stringent emissions reduction for agriculture is set worldwide, “current interventions would only deliver between 21 to 40 percent of mitigation required” to stay below the target established last year, according to a new report published by scientists from the University of Vermont; the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security; and a handful of other institutions.

The issue, the study notes, is that “how much mitigation is needed in agriculture to meet a global target versus how much is feasible remains poorly understood.” In order to stay below the two-degree warming limit, global agriculture needs to slash non-CO2 emissions, like methane and nitrous oxide, by one gigaton per year by 2030. Even reducing greenhouse gases by other major offenders like non-renewable energy won’t be enough to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement if global agriculture isn’t addressed further, argues the research team, led by the University of Vermont’s Eva Wollenberg.

Just the nation’s food production alone creates the same amount of fine particulate matter pollutants as any other human activity like power plants, cars, or industrial use.

Humans are responsible for most of the nitrogen introduced into the Earth’s atmosphere since the middle of the 20th century, according to another recent study published by researchers from Columbia University and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In the United States, nearly half the total anthropogenic pollution in the Eastern and Western portions of the country is agriculture-related. Just the nation’s food production alone — not counting how we transport or process our food — creates the same amount of fine particulate matter pollutants as any other human activity like power plants, cars, or industrial use.

“The finance and technology mechanisms in the 2015 Paris Agreement are a good start, but complementary effort will be needed at national and subnational levels, especially to engage farmers and producer organizations,” the researchers write.

There are ongoing developments that could make a slight dent in agriculture emissions, Wollenberg and her team note, such as efforts to single out cattle breeds that produce less methane, or new varieties of wheat and maize that don’t produce nitrous oxide. But even those are not sufficient to keep agricultural emissions from bumping global warming over two degrees, the authors warn.

“These are each potentially transformative options, but they are not yet enough to create the menus of options needed for diverse agroecological systems and farmers to meet a mitigation target for 2°C,” the researchers write. “Coordinated research effort and investment among countries towards high-impact, quickly implementable technical options, especially for new breeds and varieties that can be easily accessed and do not require completely new management practices or inputs, is key.”