Incorporating emissions from agriculture into a post-2012 successor to the Kyoto Protocol is a focal point for climate change negotiators and a wide range of competing and complementary interests in the run-up to the 15th Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol this December in Copenhagen.
Agriculture is an activity that cuts across numerous issues in addition to climate change and emissions reduction. High up on this list are the security and cost of food, water rights and usage, deforestation, the use of fossil fuels and derivatives, human and indigenous rights, and poverty alleviation.
At the nexus of all these issues, how best to incorporate agriculture in any new international climate change agreement highlights the complexities and risks of taking a narrow and isolated perspective to any single element of a climate change pact, as well as the dangers of pushing through and investing billions in massive efforts the possible ramifications of which are not fully known or understood.
*Photo credit: Rodale Institute
Promoting a Global Shift
Enter the Rodale Institute and the joint Swiss-German-Austrian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, FiBL. Looking to identify “viable policy paths for effective climate change mitigation,” as well “unavoidable adaptation,” Rodale and FiBL have circulated a policy brief that brings together current knowledge on the potential of organic agriculture for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Best estimates are that agriculture accounts for around 12% of global CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, around 17% in the US. Agriculture’s potential to reduce emissions “lies in its significant capacity to sequester CO2 in soils, and in its synergies between mitigation and adaptation,” according to “Reducing Global Warming: The Potential of Organic Agriculture.”
Conservative estimates of organic agriculture’s total greenhouse gas mitigation potential come in at 4.5-6.5 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent per year, though much higher reductions could be realized depending on agricultural management practices, according to the policy brief. By way of context, total global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be in the neighborhood of 50 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent.
The main benefits of organic as opposed to conventional, industrialized agriculture lie in greater carbon storage as a result of intensive humus (fertile soil) production, less in the way of nitrogen oxide emissions as less nitrogen-based inputs are used, less nitrogen oxide and methane emissions from burning biomass plant waste, and that it is less energy intensive, also due mainly to zero chemical fertilizer use.
Organic agricultural methods also have a significant add-on effect in that they are also linked with climate change adaptation, the policy brief continues.
Notable among these, improved soil quality reduces vulnerability to drought, excessive precipitation and waterlogging. The high diversity of crops and farming activities integral to organic agricultural practices and their lower costs, which reduce economic risks, should be additional factors taken into consideration, according to Rodale and FiBL.
The policy brief concludes with a short list of key points highlighting the annual potential a global shift to organic agriculture would yield in terms its potential to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as a list of references for detailed information.
Two more detailed briefs based on this one–“Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture” and “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries”–can be download here and here.