Climate and Energy

Due to the capacity of plants to absorb the greenhouse gas CO2 and soils to sequester carbon, agriculture could in the long term theoretically feed us in a climate neutral way and, in the short term, even sequester more CO2 than it emits. Instead, the agricultural sector is one of the world’s most important sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The activities predominantly responsible for the devastating carbon footprint of food production are the clearing of forests and the conversion of grassland into arable land. Other drivers are the emission of extremely potent greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide from the decomposition of mineral fertiliser as well as methane from rice production and the digestive process of ruminants in livestock farming."Agriculture contributes to climate change in several major ways including:
• Land conversion and plowing releases large amounts of stored carbon as CO2 from vegetation and soils. About 50% of the world's surface land area has been converted to land for grazing and crop cultivation resulting in a loss of more than half of the world's forests.
• Deforestation and forest degradation releases carbon through the decomposition of aboveground biomass and peat fires and decay of drained peat soils.
• Carbon dioxide (CO2) and particulate matter are emitted from fossil fuels used to power farm machinery, irrigation pumps, and for drying grain, etc., as well as fertilizer and pesticide production.
• Nitrogen fertilizer applications and manure applications as well as decomposition of agricultural wastes results in emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O).
• Methane (CH4) is released through livestock digestive processes and rice production.
• Altered radiative fluxes and evaporation from newly bare soils.
• Increased geographical distance between producer and consumer, together with regional agricultural specialization, has resulted in greater energy use for transportation." (Synthesis, p. 46-47).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributes 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions directly to agriculture and land use changes. If the processing of food, its transport, storage, cooling and disposal are added, which the IPCC credits to other sectors, more than 40% of all emissions depend on the way we farm and eat. Agriculture is therefore crucial if the target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees, through a drastic reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, is to be achieved. The climate footprint of different cultivation methods and food systems vary enormously."The highest emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture are generally associ­ated with the most intensive farming systems." (Synthesis, p. 47)

Savings potentials and storage capacity

In general, labour-intensive small-scale farming is more climate-friendly than industrial monocultures. Small-scale systems producing for local markets and direct consumption have a lower climate impact than large-scale commodity production with complex transport, processing and cold chains. The IAASTD sees the greatest potential in a more climate-friendly form of soil management: Arable land must not lie fallow and a permanent vegetative soil cover should be maintained. Tillage and the depth of ploughing have to be reduced to a minimum. The systematic building up of organic matter will increase the carbon-storage and water holding capacity as well as the fertility of the soil at the same time. For this purpose, crop residues should be tilled into the ground instead of leaving them for decomposition at the surface or burning them. The integration of trees into farming through agroforestry systems could also make an important contribution."Some "win-win" mitigation opportunities have already been identified. These include land use approaches such as lower rates of agricultural expansion into natural habitats; afforestation, reforestation, increased efforts to avoid defor­estation, agroforestry, agroecological systems, and restora­tion of underutilized or degraded lands and rangelands and land use options such as carbon sequestration in agricultural soils, reduction and more efficient use of nitrogenous inputs; effective manure management and use of feed that increases livestock digestive efficiency." (Synthesis, p. 9)In the end, the capacity of different soils to sequester carbon is of course limited. The actual prevention of greenhouse gas emissions cannot be replaced. The most important measures to achieve this are reducing the use of mineral fertiliser, substituting chemical fertiliser with green manure and organic matter, as well as using natural pest control instead of chemical herbicides and insecticides. Further saving potential lies in the optimisation of cultivation methods, irrigation systems and the keeping and feeding of livestock. Deforestation must be stopped and under-utilised or degraded land should be reafforested. The drainage of moors and peat soils, which sequester large amounts of carbon, must be avoided or reversed. >>more

Facts & Figures

In 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 50.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) per year. By 2020, emissions are estimated to increase to 59 GtCO2e per year under a business-as-usual scenario. In order to have a likely chance of achieving the least-cost pathway towards meeting the 2° C target, emissions must be cut to 44 GtCO2e by 2020. The agricultural sector could help closing the gap with a emission reduction potential of up to 4.3 GtCO2e t in 2020.

Each year, 30% of global food production - almost 1.3 billion tonnes - is lost after harvest or wasted in retail and households. The direct economic cost of food wastage are $750 billion in terms of producer prices. Environmental costs add another $700 billion. The carbon footprint of wasted food is 3.3 GtCO2e (without emissions from land use change). The global blue water footprint of food wastage is about 250 km³. Produced but uneaten food vainly occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares of land.

Without more ambitious policies than those in force today, GHG emissions will increase by another 50% by 2050, primarily due to a projected 70% growth in CO2 emissions from energy use, but also due to emissions from agriculture.

Agriculture is directly responsible for the release of 5,100 - 6,100 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year and causes a disproportionate amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). Agricultural practices are responsible for approximately 47% of anthropogenic methane emissions and 58% of nitrous oxide emissions.

In the European Union, the agricultural sector produced 476 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2009, 10.3% of the total EU-27 emissions for that year (emissions from land use change, agricultural transport and energy use are excluded). Germany and France together produced 35% of the total agricultural GHG emissions in the EU-27.

In 2010, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new high since pre-industrial times. Between 2009 and 2010, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 2.3 parts per million (ppm) to 389 ppm. The global average for methane increased to 1808 parts per billion (ppb) in 2010. Around 60% of methane emissions came from anthropogenic sources, such as ruminants, rice agriculture, fossil fuel exploitation, landfills and biomass burning. The burden of nitrous oxide in 2010 was 323.2 ppb - 20% higher than in the pre-industrial era, mainly as a result of the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers, including manure.

The total global contribution of agriculture, considering all direct and indirect emissions, is between 17 and 32% of all global human-induced GHG emissions, including land use changes. From 1990 to 2005, global agricultural methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions increased by 17% and are projected to increase by another 35 - 60% by 2030. This is being driven by growing nitrogen fertiliser use and increased livestock production.

In the EU, food waste along the supply chain is estimated at 89 million tonnes or 180 kg per person per year. Households produce the largest share of EU food waste (42%), followed by agriculture/food processing (39%), food service/catering (14%), and retail/wholesale (5%). This calculation excludes agricultural food waste, which may amount to a similar volume.

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes - gets lost or wasted. In Europe and North America, per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year. Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).


  • IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Chapter 8 Agriculture
  • FAO - Climate Change News & Publications on Climate Change
  • UNEP United Nations Environment Programme - Climate Change
  • IFPRI-Climate Change research institute working on climate change and food security
  • REDD UN initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation
  • EEA European Environment Agency - Climate Change

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Unterstützer von biovision Verlag der Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft e.V. Demeter Greenpeace Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung Eine Welt Stiftung Die Grünen, Europäische Freie Allianz Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst NABU - Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V. Misereor Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand
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