Could farming become an absorber of carbon?
At present, farming, agriculture and other land practices contribute around 11 gigatons to carbon dioxide emissions every single year, which is roughly one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. However, a recent study from the University of Virginia in the USA has argued that the land could actually be converted into an absorber of carbon, given the right conditions.
Among the measures recommended by the study’s authors were richer countries transitioning to plant-based diets and reducing food waste, while aiding poorer nations to curb deforestation and restore degraded land. If a concerted global effort was made, land could be absorbing three gigatons of carbon by 2050, turning one of our biggest liabilities into a helping hand in the fight against climate change.A roadmap for success
The ambitious but entirely attainable plans laid out by the researchers claim that implementing eight steps could achieve as much as a third of the gains necessary to comply with the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, as agreed upon at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015. Their eight recommendations are as follows:
- 95% reduction in deforestation and land degradation by 2050. This would include more robust conservation policies in developing tropical countries, as well as the conversion of coastal wetlands into protected areas and the prohibition of peatland burning.
- 25% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2050. This would include introducing synthetic or organic fertilisers, enhancing the water-agriculture interface in places where rice cultivation is a primary industry and managing emissions from fermentation and manure.
- 50% adoption of plant-based diets by 2050. This would involve encouraging a healthier diet through consumer campaigns and governmental policies, as well as the development of new foodstuffs to entice unconvinced consumers.
- 50% reduction of current level of food waste by 2050. This would involve tightening up gaps in the supply chain, improving consumer awareness through advertising campaigns and enhancing refrigeration and distribution capabilities in the developing world.
- Restoration of forests, coastal wetlands and drained peatlands. This would involve financing ecosystem services, improving in local and national conservation policies and investing in restoration practices.
- Improving forestry and agroforestry management. This would include optimising current forestation conservation process and integrating agroforestry into lands currently used for agriculture and grazing.
- Enhancing soil carbon sequestration capabilities. This would include controlling soil erosion, reducing tillage of the land and restoring degraded soils, as well as the application of biochar where appropriate.
- Deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) in developed countries. This would involve investing into the research and development of BECCS technologies and deploying them in relevant sites.
While the targets laid out in the study might sound ambitious, the authors are confident that the tools are already at our disposal to achieve them. These [measures] are feasible now and deliver many other benefits,” explained Stephanie Roe, lead author on the paper and an environmental researcher from the University of Virginia.
“Recent reports on the state of our forests and food systems show a worrying lack of progress in the land sector, and our window of opportunity to deliver on the Paris agreement is getting smaller. However, I remain optimistic because we have all the tools we need, as well as increasing public pressure and political will to turn things around.”