When it comes to grappling with environmental issues, agriculture isn’t all that different.
The old environmental mantra of think globally, act locally is the best way to approach the impact of agriculture on climate change, say two experts from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Agriculture is projected to be the second most economically damaged sector by climate change while at the same time being a significant contributor to it, Guillaume Gruere, senior policy analyst with the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate, told the Senate agriculture committee recently.
Governments should require climate change adaptation measures by farmers but they should account for local conditions, he said.
“Existing evidence shows there is a need for agriculture to undertake climate change adaptation actions, if only to reduce projected damages,” he said.
“Changes in temperature, precipitation patterns and multiplication of extreme weather events are expected to impact agriculture productivity globally, but these impacts are also expected to vary significantly across locations.”
For example, the impact of climate change on wheat production is expected to be small but negative in North America as a whole; negative but more important in Europe, on average again; and much smaller and even positive in some scenarios in countries like Korea and Japan, Gruere said.
He also recommended that government policy should complement farmers’ own adaptation actions.
“Farmers already are taking actions to adapt to climate change,” he said. “Government’s role is necessary in the presence of market failures or where the condition for adaptation accesses the public good.”
Governments should help educate farmers about research into ways to cope with climate change and assess the risks producers face, he said. They should also eliminate income support and other policies that discourage climate change adaptation.
Agriculture is one of the major greenhouse gas emitting sectors, he said.
“Direct emissions from the sector present about 10 to 12 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “It is the largest emitter of methane, mostly from ruminants, and nitrous oxide, mainly from manure and fertilizers, two gases with significantly higher global warming potential than CO2.”
Ben Henderson, an OECD Trade Policy Analyst, said recent research shows there are many cost-effective solutions for agriculture to lower its greenhouse gas emissions.
“However, the costs and benefits of these solutions vary a lot, making it difficult to identify practices that make economic sense everywhere,” Henderson said.
Carbon pricing policies can help steer farmers to the most cost-effective actions to reduce emissions and encourage innovation and investment toward lower carbon technologies for the future, he said.
“The broader the number of sectors and greenhouse gases covered by a carbon pricing instrument, the more cost effective it will be, which means lower costs to the economy, government and households in reaching any particular emission reduction target,” he told senators.
“The most desirable and direct carbon pricing approach is either tax emissions or to use an emission trading scheme with auction permits,” he said. “However, there are presently challenges associated with the measurement of agriculture emissions, but ongoing development of protocols for the measurement of these emissions could and should eventually ease these constraints, allowing greater participation by agriculture.”
Countries might hesitate to introduce climate change mitigation because it could reduce their economic competitiveness, he said.
“However, if momentum from the Paris Agreement for the inclusion of agriculture in national plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions spreads among countries, these risks will fade,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s possible to implement carbon pricing in ways that reduce or eliminate competitive risks.
“One approach is to include agriculture as a voluntary auction or offset market, which government and other sectors that are required to pay for emissions can purchase emission reductions from agriculture,” he said. The OECD intends to release a report this year “that aims to address all of these issues on carbon pricing.” It will include an assessment of Canadian policies.
There are two broad strategies agriculture can follow in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Henderson said. “One is to improve the productive efficiency of the livestock sector. The other is to look for ways to reduce emissions, absorb emissions from the atmosphere through sequestration opportunities, such as building up soil carbon.”