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Agriculture emissions guidelines could help meet new climate change targets, study shows

May 17th, 2016 14:58

For Immediate Release

Agriculture sector should commit to specific greenhouse gas emissions targets to contribute to fight against global warming, researchers propose

EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – International scientists have calculated the extent to which agricultural emissions must be reduced to meet targets detailed in the Paris climate agreement aimed at holding the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The agriculture sector must reduce non-CO2 emissions* by 1 gigatonne per year by 2030, according to estimates detailed in a new study by scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the University of Vermont (UVM), the University of Aberdeen (UOA), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and partner institutions. Projections also revealed a major gap between existing mitigation options for the agriculture sector and the reductions needed: current interventions which include improving fertilizer application and manure storage practices  are projected to deliver only 21 to 40 percent of mitigation required.

Emission reductions in such sectors as energy and transportation will be insufficient to meet targets, the authors of the report Reducing emissions from agriculture to meet the 2°C targetsaid, arguing that agricultural practices must change to help fight global warming. Global institutions focused on agriculture and food security should set a sectoral target mirroring the overall aim of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and track progress toward goals.

“This research is a reality check,” said Lini Wollenberg, leader of the CCAFS Low Emissions Development research program, based at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “Countries want to take action on agriculture, but the options currently on offer won’t make the dent in emissions needed to meet the global targets agreed to in Paris. We need a much bigger menu of technical and policy solutions with major investment to bring them to scale.”

Overall, 119 nations included mitigation in agriculture in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions submitted to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty. However, no work has yet been carried out to determine how these pledges will be accomplished leading to the release of the report. by CCAFS and collaborators..

Agriculture contributes an average of 35 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries and 12 percent in developed countries. Efforts to mitigate agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions levels must be balanced with the need to produce enough food, particularly in poorer nations, the authors of the study caution. “We need to help farmers play their part in reaching global climate goals while still feeding the world,” said Pete Smith, professor and theme leader for environment and food security at the University of Aberdeen and co-author of the paper. “A lot can already be done with existing best management practices in agriculture. The tough part is how to reduce emissions by a further two to five times and support large numbers of farmers to change their practices in the next 10 to 20 years.”

To realise the 1 Gigatonne per year mitigation target for non-CO2 emissions in agriculture set out in the paper, 21 to 40 percent could be achieved with known practices, such as:

“CIMMYT is currently transferring sensor-based technology for nitrogen management that together with the appropriate timing of nitrogen application has shown that N2O emissions can be reduced by 50 percent in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico,” said Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio, CIMMYT principal scientist and co-author, referring to a key wheat research area in Mexico’s northern state of Sonora.  “This sensor technology is also being transferred in other areas of Mexico and India.”

Appropriate climate change policies will be a key factor for transfering these technologies extensively throughout the developing world, Ortiz-Monasterio added.


However, implementation of strategies to reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions require massive investment, information sharing and technical support to enable a global-scale transition.

Higher impact technologies and policies will be needed. Promising technical innovations on the horizon include recently developed methane inhibitors that reduce dairy cow emissions by 30 percent without affecting milk yields, breeds of cattle that produce lower methane levels, and varieties of cereal crops that release less nitrous oxide.

Policies that support more ambitious mitigation include: introducing more rigorous carbon pricing, taxes and subsidies; governments and the private sector adopting sustainability standards that include reduced emissions in agriculture; and improving the reach of technical assistance for farmers on locally relevant mitigation options through mobile and web-based information portals.

Focusing more attention to sequestering soil carbon, increasing agroforestry, decreasing food loss and waste and shifting dietary patterns could all contribute significantly to reducing emissions from agriculture, according to the authors. However, further work is needed to fully understand how best to mitigate emissions from these sources, so action is needed now to identify options and their impacts.

* The study focuses on non-carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in agriculture such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), both potent greenhouse gases with significantly higher global warming potential than CO2. Soil carbon was excluded from the analysis because data is highly variable and involves many assumptions related to organic matter inputs, carbon-nitrogen ratios, depth and bulk density, and timing of saturation. Carbon in biomass, such as agroforestry, was also excluded as the global data is comparatively weak.

 “Reducing emissions from agriculture to meet the 2°C target” was first published in Global Change Biology on 17th May 2016, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13340


Genevieve Renard, CIMMYT Communications



Liz Sharma, Marchmont Communications

+44 (0) 7963 122988 / liz@marchmontcomms.com

Further reading:

Agriculture’s contribution to national emissions: https://ccafs.cgiar.org/publications/agricultures-contribution-national-emissions

Mitigation Options Tool for Agriculture: https://ccafs.cgiar.org/mitigation-option-tool-agriculture

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), brings together the world’s best researchers in agricultural science, development research, climate science and Earth System science, to identify and address the most important interactions, synergies and trade-offs between climate change, agriculture and food security. www.ccafs.cgiar.org

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in El Batan, Mexico, is the global leader in research for development in wheat and maize and wheat- and maize-based farming systems. CIMMYT works throughout the developing world with hundreds of partners to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat systems to improve food security and livelihoods. CIMMYT is a member of the 15-member CGIAR Consortium and leads the Consortium Research Programs on Wheat and Maize. CIMMYT receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.


CIMMYT – The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat, and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.