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Possible pathways for low-GHG EU agriculture

Land use Net-Zero 2050
| 28.02.2019

Agriculture is a major contributor to GHG emissions, having been responsible for approximately 10% of economy-wide GHG emissions in the EU in 2016 and moving the sector towards net-zero emissions by mid-century, consistent with the ambition of the Paris Agreement, presents one of the most transformational challenges faced by the sector since the development of post-war agriculture. Nevertheless, agriculture along with other rural land-using sectors is unique in its ability to both reduce its own emissions, but also increase carbon removals from the atmosphere, and contribute to emission reductions in other sectors through the substitution of carbon-intensive materials and energy.

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“Net-zero agriculture in 2050: how to get there?”, a new report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, shows that it’s feasible and highlights actions and policies needed to reach that point.

Main findings

Enabling agriculture to make a significant and proportionate contribution to the EU’s climate mitigation efforts will require the deployment of all the tools and options available to the sector to drive down GHG emissions and increase the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere.

It is only by implementing actions across both the production and consumption (supply and demand) sides that we can transform the way agricultural products are conceived in response to the climate challenge and how the sector can support climate action but clarity on what actions should be taken and by whom is required. It may therefore be necessary to develop an emission reduction hierarchy to guide and support actions across the agri-food sector following similar approaches taken towards waste and the EU’s circular economy transition, such as:

  • Avoiding emissions where possible. Changing the types of commodities produced, reducing the consumption of livestock and other carbon-intensive products, and eliminating food waste;
  • Reducing emissions where they cannot be avoided altogether. Increasing the resource-efficiency of production, lowering the per-unit GHG emissions of a commodity, producing seasonally and in the most optimal conditions in Europe, and reducing harvesting wastes;
  • Recovery of emissions where possible. Increasing the sequestration potential on land to build carbon sequestration into standard production practices and ensuring its continued and permanent management on agricultural land. Developing circular-bioeconomies that recover post consumption and production nutrients, energy and materials as inputs to the sector, reducing the need for new inputs. Future agriculture must be different from that of today, sufficiently transformed to enable its contribution to the delivery of net-zero emissions, while providing adequate nutrition and other ecosystem services to an increasingly global society.

This report considers first what could be done to reduce emissions within agriculture, before looking at its potential to support other sectors in the economy or rely on other land-using sectors (e.g. forestry) to offset any emissions. It focuses indeed solely on agriculture’s contribution to the mitigation of climate change but there are a number of other dimensions that will need to be considered (trade-offs and co-benefits with climate adaptation and wider planetary boundaries as well as implications beyond EU borders.

The report is part of the Net-zero series, an initiative of the European Climate Foundation with contributions from a consortium of experts and organisations. It builds on a review of over 60 relevant scenarios from 18 different studies in order to understand how and to what extent emissions from agriculture can be reduced, and whether there is consensus in the existing literature. This was complemented through the use of the Carbon Transparency Initiative 2050 Roadmap Tool (CTI tool) to explore four illustrative scenarios to test the potential for efficiency improvements, changes in production volume and/or mix, as well as increasing carbon sequestration potential on farmed land. A stakeholder platform in the EU, and in France was used to test ideas around potential mitigation options.

  • About the Net-Zero 2050 initiative

    The Net-Zero 2050 is a new initiative of the European Climate Foundation with contributions from a consortium of experts and organisations funded by the ECF.

    The objective of Net-Zero 2050 is to start building a vision and evidence base for the transition to net-zero emission societies in Europe and beyond, by midcentury at the latest. The Paris Agreement commits us to make this transition, and long-term strategic planning shows that many of the decisions and actions needed to get us on track must be taken without delay. Reports in the series seek to enhance understanding of the implications and opportunities of moving to climate neutrality across the power, industry, buildings, transport, agriculture, land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sectors; to shed light on some of the near-term choices and actions needed to reach this goal, and to provide a basis for discussion and engagement with stakeholders and policy-makers.

    With acknowledgement of the source, reproduction of all or part of the publication is authorised, except for commercial purposes.