Agriculture in a 1.5 °C world

Agriculture is among the most exposed sectors to climate inducted changes, simply because farming activities are – to a great extent – dependent on environmental and climatic conditions. Changes in mean temperature and precipitation patterns as well as more extreme weather events have already affected crop production in multiple ways. Spatial shifts in production areas, reduced yields and production levels have been observed throughout the globe. Of course, the nature and distribution of these impacts varies across regions and farm types, and while some areas may see limited benefits (e.g. linked to increased CO2 fertilisation), overall negative effects outweigh the positive ones. Further temperature increases will result in a greater reduction in global crop yields and global nutrition. Conclusions are similar in the context of livestock production that is expected to be negatively affected by changes in feed quality (linked to crop production), spread of diseases and water availability. Subsequently, food security implications, including effects on protein availability and food price, will be very different in a 1.5 °C versus a 2 °C warmer world.

At the same time, the IPCC warns that it is in our best interests to fundamentally change the way we utilise our lands and produce our food, if we are to keep global temperature increase within 1.5 °C. Agriculture is currently responsible for around 13% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and in the EU they are becoming more significant as other sectors continue to pursue emission reduction strategies. The less ambitious we are in reducing agricultural emissions, the more we will need to rely on carbon-dioxide removal technologies, many of which are land-based with substantial land-use footprint and trade-offs with other objectives, including biodiversity and water conservation.

How to overcome these challenges? Each transition pathway for a low carbon and resilient agriculture sector has different trade-offs and co-benefits. What is clear from IEEP’s work on achieving net-zero emissions in agriculture by 2050 is that there is no single solution, with coherent action needed across the agri-food sector. Mounting evidence suggests that productivity increases and technological advancement will not be sufficient without changing our consumption patterns, alongside realising the potential of the agriculture (and other land-using sectors) to naturally increase CO2 removals. These approaches should be seen as an opportunity for the farming sector to play a greater role in climate mitigation. This in turn will help to develop and revitalise rural areas, making them more resilient to future climate change. To achieve this requires a major transformation of the EU food and agriculture sector which involves the development of coherent and synergistic policies, in particular aligning CAP strategic plans and national bioeconomy strategies to Member State long term emission reduction strategies; a new contract between farmers and society; appropriate governance; alongside new approaches to addressing consumption as well as production.