IPCC warns food systems must deliver decisive low-carbon shift

4 Apr 2022 | John McGarrity

Countries, companies and individuals need to do much more to slash greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, farming and forestry if these sectors are to play a meaningful role in slowing down the pace of climate change, the UN’s climate science panel warned on Monday.

The urgings are a depressingly familiar echo from previous reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, and the sense of urgency has grown even more shrill as the planet’s population nears 8 billion and demand for key food crops such as soybean and protein soars, driving up demand for farmland and carbon-intensive fertiliser.  

“Agriculture provides the second-largest share of the mitigation potential… from cropland and grassland soil carbon management, agroforestry, use of biochar, improved rice cultivation, and livestock and nutrient management,” the IPCC said in its report on mitigation strategies to slow the pace of climate change which is intended to inform national policies.

The report said these measures could reduce global greenhouse emissions by 4.1 gigatonnes (Gt) carbon dioxide-equivalent between now and 2050, compared with estimated global emissions of 59 Gt in 2019 when land-use changes are taken into account.

The UN climate science report said demand-side measures, such as shifting to sustainable healthy diets, reductions in food waste, building with wood, and the use of biochemicals, and bio-textiles, had a combined mitigation potential of 2.2 GtCO2-eq year.

“Most mitigation options are available and ready to deploy,” the report said, but the UN’s wider message in the report was that there must be “rapid, deep and immediate” cuts in GHG emissions, while global emissions of CO2 across all major economic sectors would need to peak within three years to ward off the worst impacts of climate change.

Removal of carbon from the atmosphere on a mass scale will be required to reduce GHG emissions below the threshold of a 1.5C temperature rise, the IPCC said, warning that based on currently-pledged mitigation measures, the planet is on course for a 3.2C rise in average global temperatures, an increase that would render much of the world's land as uninhabitable.  

The report said policies aimed at reducing emissions from farming and land-use change had largely failed so far, and would require much stronger governance, institutions, long-term and consistent execution of mitigation measures, as well as specific policy setting.

The report noted that so far, $0.7-1.44 billion per year has been spent on GHG mitigation from agriculture and land use, well short of the more than $400 billion per year that is estimated to be necessary to deliver up to 30% of the global mitigation effort estimated as necessary to keep the world within the lesser magnitude of climate change.

“This estimate of the global funding requirement is smaller than current subsidies provided to agriculture and forestry. A gradual redirection of existing agriculture and forestry subsidies would greatly advance mitigation,” the report said.

The IPCC said it estimated that absolute GHG emissions from food systems had risen from 14 to 17 GtCO2-eq year in the period 1990-2018.