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New IEEP report on the potential of agriculture to contribute to emissions reductions

21st Aug 2017

The Institute for European Environmental Policy released back in April 2017 a paper which looks at the potential contribution of agriculture to the emissions reductions targets that have been documented by the European Union. The full paper can be read here but below are the key messages that come out of the paper, which (in my mind) make a lot of sense!

Key messages

  • The agriculture sector can make a significant contribution to the EU’s climate mitigation efforts. While it is widely acknowledged that agriculture can contribute to mitigation by increasing carbon removals on agricultural land (reported under LULUCF), this study shows that there is also a significant untapped potential for the agriculture sector to contribute through reducing its non-CO2 emissions.
  • The extent of the sector’s contribution will largely depend on the level of ambition of the sector, the costs of the mitigation action and the level of public support available, but studies show that agriculture can achieve significant climate mitigation even in situations where the financial incentive for mitigation is low and where actions are not supported through policy. Mitigation actions that are available as well as their mitigation potential and costs will evolve over time, as new technology becomes available or more affordable.
  •  A wide range of mitigation actions are already available to the agriculture sector, but have yet to be adopted at the scale and intensity necessary to deliver lasting emission reductions.
  • Care must be taken to balance climate mitigation with the potential impacts on production and to look for the environmental and economic co-benefits of mitigation efforts. An important point to acknowledge is the evolving nature of all these factors, e.g. a mitigation action may only have short term production impacts.
  • Focusing on non-CO2 emissions, there is a great deal of variation in the mitigation potential of individual climate mitigation actions in the agriculture sector. This variation exists both in the potential of an action per unit of uptake as well as uncertainties regarding the overall potential applicability of that action, as a result of the differing emission effects of individual actions in different environmental, biogeographical and socioeconomic contexts as well as different baselines of current farming practice.
  • Better information is needed to determine the precise level of mitigation potential in the agricultural sector. More effort should be devoted to monitoring climate action and its impact at the EU and Member State level.
  • The cost of mitigation actions and the impact they have on production are important considerations in relation to their likely uptake and therefore overall potential. Some mitigation actions will be low cost and therefore could be adopted by farmers without significant investment or impact on production; some may have higher costs but result in greater efficiency or new revenue streams, whereas some will be high cost without being necessarily rewarded by gains in production or other cost savings or income generation – this is where financial support may be required. Where this is the case, different types of financial support may be required to compensate for the costs incurred. For instance, some actions may involve high costs in the form of one-off investments, some may have short-term only production impacts while other actions may lead to longer term costs or production effects. 
  • Supporting mitigation activities in the sector can have high costs in some cases, yet climate mitigation actions can achieve environmental co-benefits provided they are implemented in a way that is complementary to broader environmental goals and societal objectives. These cobenefits, particularly those for the environment, will only be provided under specific, often context-dependent, conditions.  
  • The existing studies reviewed in this report do not provide the information to support the widely held view that mitigation in agriculture is (or is not) more technically challenging or more cost-ineffective compared to other ESD sectors, particularly when environmental cobenefits are considered. The studies do show however that there are potentially significant impacts on production for some actions that should be balanced with mitigation effort and overall impact on GHG emissions.
  • The influence of individual choices is significant. Unlike many other sectors, promoting climate mitigation actions in agriculture relies on the adoption of actions by millions of individuals and small businesses. Support and information awareness raising to farmers is therefore essential to engage farmers in climate mitigation actions and help deliver a range of environmental and economic co-benefits.
  • Support for implementing mitigation activities is available through the CAP and can provide complementarity to other objectives and Union priorities. This includes advice and support frameworks, opportunities for testing innovative approaches, enhancing collaboration and financial support for the actions themselves.
  • The right mix of supporting conditions is necessary to ensure that mitigation efforts are adopted and implemented correctly, to avoid any long-term production impacts which may lead to carbon leakage effects (production in third countries), reducing the overall mitigation effort at the global level, and ensure coherence with other environmental and economic objectives. 
  • Addressing climate mitigation from the agriculture sector requires consideration of both supply (i.e. production) and demand (i.e. consumption) side. The agriculture sector, like many others, responds to market demands and demographic changes. This study has not looked at the tools available to support mitigation action on the demand side, but these will need to be allied to measures on the production side, so as to reduce pressure on the sector as a whole.
  • A clear decarbonisation agenda for the sector is necessary. Articulating this through a longterm low emission strategy for the agricultural sector should provide the necessary framework in which emission reductions and removals are to be achieved and by when. Setting a quantitative target for agriculture would give clarity to farmers and Member States about the necessary effort needed and set clear ambition. Any long-term strategy will need to consider the trade-offs between mitigation, production and the cost to society (and Member States). This will require a fresh look at the role of the sector both in terms of reducing emissions and increasing removals, as well as the role of society as a whole.
  • Taking mitigation action in agriculture cannot be ignored and the sector must increase its contribution to emission reductions and removals. There is only so long that agriculture emissions can be compensated by emission reductions in other ESD sectors or through sequestration and storage of carbon in other land-using sectors. Over time, there will be increasing competition to use removals from the land-using sectors to address increasingly challenging reductions in other sectors, beyond agriculture. A key question for research and policy is therefore what level of emission removals is possible within the land-using sectors and how (if at all) should this be shared out amongst other sectors as they reach the limits of mitigation (which the agricultural sector is far from having achieved to date).This study examines the potential contribution that the agriculture sector could make to climate mitigation efforts in the EU through the proposed Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR). It was commissioned by Transport and Environment in the context of developing understanding on the role of the non-ETS sectors could play in climate mitigation efforts in the EU