Farmers Poised to Offset One-Quarter of Global Fossil Fuel Emissions Annually

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Julia Tier
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Farmers Poised to Offset One-Quarter of Global Fossil Fuel Emissions Annually

WASHINGTON - Innovations in food production and land use that are ready to be
scaled-up today could reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to
roughly 25 percent of global fossil fuel emissions and present the best
opportunity to remove greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere,
according to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute and
Ecoagriculture Partners. As the price of carbon rises with new caps on
emissions and expanding markets for carbon offsets, the contribution of
land-based, or "terrestrial," carbon to climate change mitigation
efforts could increase even further.

Carbon capture and sequestration technologies, which remain unproven
and will not be ready for implementation for a decade at best, promise
only to sequester greenhouse gases that have yet to be released into
the atmosphere. Agricultural and other land use management practices,
in contrast, are the only innovations available today
to sequester greenhouse gases that are already in the
atmosphere-pulling in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis to grow and
sustain more plants.

Mobilizing agricultural carbon sequestration is therefore an essential
tool in the effort to reduce the atmospheric concentration of
greenhouse gases to the 350 parts-per-million level that many
scientists argue we must achieve to avoid catastrophic climate change.
A recent assessment published by Worldwatch in State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World found
that emissions of carbon dioxide will have to "go negative"-with more
being absorbed than emitted-by 2050 to achieve this goal.

"The science and policy communities in Europe and beyond have focused
most of their attention to date on improving energy efficiency and
scaling up renewables," said Ecoagriculture Partners' Sara Scherr,
co-author of Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use with Sajal Sthapit. "While
these initiatives are integral in the transition to a low-carbon
economy, any strategy that seeks to mitigate global climate change
without reducing emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land
uses is doomed to fail."

More than 30 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are
linked to agriculture and land use, rivaling the combined emissions of
the transportation and industry sectors. The report outlines five major
strategies for reducing and sequestering  greenhouse gas emissions
through farming and land use:

  • Enriching soil carbon. Soil, the third
    largest carbon pool on Earth's surface, can be managed to reduce
    greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing tillage, cutting use of nitrogen
    fertilizers, and preventing erosion. Soils can store a vast amount of
    additional carbon by building up organic matter and by burying carbon
    in the form of biochar (biomass burned in a low-oxygen environment).
  • Farming with perennials. Two-thirds
    of all arable land is used to grow annual grains, but there is large
    potential to substitute these with perennial trees, shrubs, palms, and
    grasses that produce food, livestock feed, and fuel. These perennials
    maintain and develop their roots and branches over many years, storing
    carbon in the vegetation and soil.
  • Climate-friendly livestock production. Livestock
    accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions from
    agriculture and land use. Innovations such as rotational grazing,
    manure management, methane capture for biogas production, and improved
    feeds and feed additives can reduce livestock-related emissions.
  • Protecting natural habitat. Deforestation,
    land clearing, and forest and grassland fires are major sources of
    greenhouse gas emissions. Incentives are needed to encourage farmers,
    ranchers, and foresters to maintain natural forest and grassland
    habitats through product certification, payments for climate services,
    securing tenure rights, and community fire control.
  • Restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands. Restoring
    vegetation on vast areas of degraded land can reduce greenhouse gas
    emissions while making land productive again, protecting critical
    watersheds, and alleviating rural poverty.

The report also responds to several key issues that have constrained
the use of terrestrial carbon solutions and highlights six principles
for tapping the full potential of land use mitigation. These include:
incorporating the full range of terrestrial emission options, including
cap-and-trade systems, in climate investment and policy; promoting
voluntary markets for greenhouse gas emission offsets from agriculture
and land use while working out rules for regulated markets; and linking
terrestrial climate mitigation with climate adaptation, rural
development, and conservation strategies to generate widespread
benefits beyond climate-helping to mobilize a worldwide-networked
movement for climate-friendly food, forest, and other land-based
production.

Although the climate conversation has long focused on developing
enduring solutions in the energy sector, Worldwatch President
Christopher Flavin says that land use is equally important. "The bottom
line is that innovations in agriculture provide the best opportunity to
remove carbon from the atmosphere. We cannot reach 350 ppm without
changing the way we grow our food and use our land."

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The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues. Its mission is to generate and promote insights and ideas that empower decision makers to build an ecologically sustainable society that meets human needs.

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