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Reducing Emissions Through Improved Farming Practices

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Reducing Emissions Through Improved Farming Practices

Reducing Emissions Through Improved Farming Practices
May 08
10:53 2020
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McKinsey & Company Agriculture practice has released a new report examining the role of agriculture in climate change and how to reduce emissions through improved farming practices. The report identifies 25 measures to reduce on-farm emissions, with the cumulative potential to abate up to 4.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2050, as well as detailing the reductions required from changing global diets, and management of forests and natural carbon sinks in order to stick to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C pathway.

When assessed over a 20-year timeframe*, agriculture already contributes around 20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. On current trends, this is set to rise by 15-20% by 2050 to reach about 23.4 GtCO2e in total, driven by rising populations and by increasing per capita food consumption. What’s more, methane has a significant impact with a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere, lasting just 12 years.

Joshua Katz, Partner at McKinsey & Company, says: “Throughout history, agriculture has risen to humanity’s greatest challenges. Today, the sector faces perhaps its biggest one yet: to reduce its emissions while feeding a growing global population with enhanced nutritional needs. It’s a challenge the sector absolutely can meet – and this report shows how – but it will require concerted efforts from companies, policymakers, farmers and innovators alike.”

Of the top 25 measures identified by the report, just 15 could account for as much as 85% of the total emissions abatement. Further, 15 of the 25 are already today assessed as cost saving or neutral on a global scale. The top five measures in terms of abatement potential are:

  1. Adoption of zero-emissions on-farm machinery and equipment (~537 MtCO2e, at cost savings of ~$229/tCO2e)
  2. Use of GHG–focused genetic animal selection and breeding (~506 MtCO2e, at zero cost)
  3. Improving fertilization practices in rice cultivation (~449 MtCO2e, at cost of ~$3/tCO2e)
  4. Improving animal health monitoring and illness prevention (~411 MtCO2e, at cost savings of ~$5/tCO2e)
  5. Optimising the animal feed mix (~370 MtCO2e, at cost of ~$131/tCO2e).

Joshua Katz continues: “It is certainly possible to reduce agricultural emissions by improving our production systems, adjusting what we eat, how much we waste, and how we manage our forests and carbon sinks. Technology offers great potential, however the innovation required will need to be broad based and from multiple sources. To achieve this requires swift action. This report, we hope will inform and trigger the necessary change in this sector.”

In order to meet the 1.5°C target outlined in the Paris Agreement, the report estimates that 8.6 GtCO2e will need to come from changing how we eat and reducing waste, and that 5.2 GtCO2e must come from better management of forests and natural carbon sinks. This is in addition to the 4.6 GtCO2e of emissions reductions from farming.

*For the purposes of policy discussion and target setting, greenhouse gases are generally measured by global warming potential (GWP), a measure of how much energy the emissions of one ton of gas will absorb during a given period, relative to the emissions of one ton of carbon dioxide. GWP is  calculated for a specific time span, most commonly 100 years. But the lifetime for each greenhouse gas is different. As methane only lasts in the atmosphere for approximately 12 years, its GWP will differ depending on a given time span. One ton of methane has 28 times the effect of one ton of carbon dioxide when measured at a 100-year GWP but 84 times the effect at a 20-year GWP. Given the importance of action and the short-term-gain potential of reducing agriculture’s methane emissions, the primary analysis is based on 20-year GWP values. References available in the full report.

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