The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, which was released this week, paints a dire picture, observing that changes recently experienced in our climate are unprecedented. Furthermore, the hundreds of scientists around the world who drafted this latest global climate assessment say that some of the changes already set in motion – continued sea level rise among them – are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.
However, strong and sustained reductions now in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, like those that can be achieved by the agriculture and forestry sectors, would limit the damages from climate change, the scientists assert.
While benefits for air quality would come quickly with concerted effort, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize, according to the IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis. At least 195 UN member nations signed off on the document, which is the first instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) to be completed next year.
IPCC officials say the report offers a “reality check,” providing new estimates showing an increased chance of our climate exceeding the aspirational goal of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius – a limit set at the Paris Climate Talks in late 2015 – within the next decades. Of greater concern are their findings showing that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, warming may exceed the 2-degree limit that scientists say will lead “catastrophic” climate conditions.
A major policy step that can be taken for growers would be to further incentivize the practices that can build carbon sequestration in farmlands, ranging from no- to low-till soil preparation, to cover crops between harvests, to crop rotation, to heightened land management using innovative technology. So too for systems and practices that enable precision application of fertilizer which simultaneously reduce input costs and climate-altering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These practices do not come without costs, yet their implementation can bring a multi-fold increase in benefits, including healthier ecosystems, including improved water quality and wildlife habitats.
Another important pathway for quickly and significantly reducing GHG emissions is making greater use of renewable fuels, including substituting higher blends of ethanol for aromatic hydrocarbons in gasoline. Low carbon high octane ethanol is a low cost, readily available fuel that, according to the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, now has a 44 to 52 percent lower carbon intensity than gasoline.
For ranchers, rotational (and multi-species, if available) grazing serves to retain carbon in the soil, as do segmenting livestock into more than one herd, then circulating them through a multitude of pastures; the pursuit of slow and sustained native grass growth that can build soil fertility; and the retention of livestock manure and decaying plant residue to restore minerals and microbes that build soil health and carbon retention.
Sustainable practices that can increase the ability of forests to sequester atmospheric carbon while enhancing other ecosystem services, such as improved soil and water quality, include planting new trees and improving forest health through thinning and prescribed burning. Harvesting and regenerating forests can also result in net carbon sequestration in wood products and new forest growth.
Last year the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), a multi-stakeholder platform facilitated by SfL, released a roadmap that outlined multiple agricultural pathways to effectively address the changing climate. The roadmap raises up the importance of the climate smart agriculture (CSA) framework and NACSAA’s Guiding Principles in policy development. Strategies range from minor adjustments in existing production to major changes in agricultural systems and best management practices. The recommendations call attention to the profound and critical role agriculture plays in bridging gaps in policy arenas from food security and nutrition, to energy and national security, to rural development and job creation, to environmental protection and climate mitigation. As daunting as the IPCC report may be, the good news is that CSA systems and practices that farming, ranching and forestry operations can – and are – putting onto use can be scaled up with sound enabling polices and markets. We urge policy makers to fully heed the warnings from the IPCC report and provide the tools needed by those who work the land to succeed in their efforts to adapt to – and battle against – the ever-growing threat posed by climate change.