Almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to agricultural and food systems. At COP28 in Dubai, some of the negotiations will focus on avenues for the transformation of the sector. Making agricultural production more sustainable, changing diets, reducing food loss and waste: where can improvements be made and where should efforts be targeted?
COP28: time to take stock
CIRAD will be at COP28, as it has been every year since COP21. Six of its scientists will be moderating or participating in side events, to hammer home a series of messages on the key role of soils, forests, crop and livestock farming systems and the One Health approach in achieving greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. While nobody can deny that farming and food systems must be transformed, they will also be significantly affected by the effects of climate change, as will health systems. Adaptation and mitigation must therefore go hand-in-hand.
This is the first time that a Climate COP will be looking at the topic of health. Health, climate and biodiversity are intrinsically linked, and should therefore be addressed simultaneously by means of a One Health approach.
>> The series of side events begins on Sunday 3 December with an event organized by the PREZODE initiative in the France Pavilion, on the topic of health and adaptation to climate change.Follow Pavilion France events live
According to the latest IPCC report on climate change and land, the AFOLU sector (agriculture, forestry and other land uses) is behind 23% of net total manmade GHG emissions, which are mainly split between direct GHG emissions attributable to agricultural production (12%) and deforestation (9%). Including emissions relating to pre- and post-production activities within the global food system, estimates range between 20 and 37% of net total manmade GHG emissions.
Slashing emissions from agricultural activities by 75%
However, farming could also be a source of solutions. The land sector is a crucial lever for developing GHG mitigation strategies, by capturing 29% of total GHG emissions. Agricultural activities as a whole also have very high potential to cut their own emissions (75%) by adopting the right practices, notably by reducing synthetic input use and introducing agroecological practices, and have substantial capacity to store carbon in both the soil and biomass (plants, soil organisms, etc).
It is there, beneath our feet: the soil. We barely notice it, yet it is below ground that the greatest quantities of carbon are stored in terrestrial ecosystems. Soils can play a substantial role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This implies preserving the huge carbon stocks found below ground, but also restoring degraded lands, in particular through specific agricultural practices that enable more carbon to be stored in soils. We explain how.
Fostering soil health to capture carbon
A study published on 22 June in Nature Communications summarizes 230 meta-analyses focusing on the effects of land use, agricultural and forestry practices and climate change on soil organic carbon. Based on more than 25 000 experiments, it identifies agricultural land management practices that are effective in restoring soil carbon, such as agroforestry and the use of organic amendments. The effects of climate change are a potential threat to the maintenance of soil carbon on a large scale.
According to scientists, the concept of soil health is crucial to transforming food systems in order to achieve the net zero CO2 emissions target by 2050.
Experts from CIRAD, IRD and the "4 per 1000" international initiative have issued a reminder of the vital importance of healthy soils in ensuring that food systems meet the target of zero net CO2 emissions. A few days ahead of COP28, they make a series of recommendations in a policy brief intended for policymakers.
>> Researchers will be presenting their results on soils, soil health and carbon storage at several side events in the UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), France and Francophonie Pavilions on 5, 8 and 10 December.Detailed programme
"4 per 1000": new recommendations to preserve soil carbon in the French overseas regions and mitigate climate change
The "Overseas 4 per 1000" study, coordinated by CIRAD in partnership with INRAE and IRD, set out to inventory soil carbon stocks in the French overseas regions. The authors made operational and research recommendations to preserve these substantial stocks and tackle the main agricultural issues resulting from climate change on a national and territorial level.
Betting on agroforestry and on preserving existing forest cover
"Several recent studies have highlighted the key role of forests and agroforests in capturing carbon" says Alain Billand, forestry expert with CIRAD General management. Researchers are calling for incentive measures targeted at farmers to speed up the adoption of agroforestry.
As the world races to reduce carbon emissions, a new scientific review published in Nature Climate Change underscores the untapped potential of agroforestry as a natural climate solution in the fight to secure a sustainable future. The review was led by global environment nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in collaboration with other internationally recognized organizations, including CIRAD.
Combined with massive efforts to reduce GHG emissions, leaving forests to regenerate naturally could capture an additional 226 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon or thereabouts.
A new study following on from work by the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative (GFBI) international network, of which CIRAD is a member, estimates that natural forest regeneration could capture some 226 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon, provided global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. Those results were published recently in the journal Nature.
"The growing interest in restoring tropical forests means greater possibilities of promoting management of secondary and degraded tropical forests, agroforestry systems and mixed plantations including local species, for instance to produce wood. Community forestry could make a significant contribution to increasing the area of productive forests, while promoting the conservation of vast swathes of ancient forests within community forestry concessions."
Livestock production can also be carbon-neutral!
In the livestock sector, increased global demand for meat has played a significant part in pushing up the sector's GHG emissions worldwide. The livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of manmade GHG emissions, and while 70% of that figure is down to ruminants (due to methane emissions), grass-fed rearing systems are "only" responsible for 20% of total emissions from livestock production but have substantial mitigation potential thanks to carbon storage in the soil.
In the Sahel, for instance, pastoralism, which makes optimum use of an extreme environment, serves to store carbon: some "40 ± 6 kilogrammes of carbon equivalent per hectare, per year", as the CASSECS project has demonstrated. The project's researchers are calling for a new perspective on livestock farming in the Sahel.
The international community has to give itself the means to quantify the true environmental impact of agropastoral livestock systems, in order to draft more just GHG reduction policies.
Whereas livestock production often stands accused of being one of the agricultural activities that generate the most greenhouse gases, in some situations, it can in fact indirectly mitigate climate change. Researchers from CIRAD have shown that certain pastoral zones in the Sahel have a negative carbon balance. This startling fact could prompt greater State involvement in such zones, hence contributing to their development and stabilization.
>> Researchers will be presenting their results on the carbon balances of pastoral and agropastoral livestock systems in the Sahel at a side event on 9 December in the CILSS Pavilion.Detailed programme
Stepping up investment to support the transformation of the agricultural sector
In addition to simplifying carbon accounting, when assessing the agricultural and food sector, it is vital that we take account of the contribution it makes to alleviating poverty and improving food security.
Family farmers produce a third of the world's food but receive just 0.3% of global climate funding, according to a recent Climate Focus study.
Less than 2% of climate funding currently goes to the agricultural sector. This is not enough to support its transformation.
CIRAD has been actively following talks within the framework of the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since COP21, which saw the signing of the Paris Agreement. It is a member of the "Climate" interministerial group for food security and attends the Climate COPs in its capacity as observer. It is also regularly called upon to re-read documents such as the IPCC report and to make direct contributions to the Koronivia working group, in association with its partners in both North and South. The talks held by the Koronivia Joint Work Action on agriculture were concluded at COP27 (see our summing up). A further four-year programme of talks is now under way with a view to ensuring that climate action is taken as regards both agriculture and food security.
Find out more
LES GRANDS DOSSIERS DE DIPLOMATIE No. 76 – Special issue on the geopolitics of climate change (in French)
- Les sols sous les effets du changement climatique : perspectives géopolitiques, options d’atténuation et d’adaptation
By Julien Demenois, "4 per 1000: soils for food security and climate" correspondent, CIRAD
- Les dynamiques de la déforestation mondiale
By Alain Karsenty, economist, CIRAD
- L’action climatique pour l’agriculture et la sécurité alimentaire : des avancées malgré les tensions Nord-Sud
By Marie Hrabanski, political sociology researcher, CIRAD