Making recommendations on climate change mitigation

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The latest assessment of global climate change is out and scientists from around the world have recommended changes including some in agriculture, forestry and other land use designed to mitigate their effects on climate change.

As a lead author of a chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report released this month, Kansas State University Distinguished Professor and soil microbiologist Chuck Rice gave a presentation at the World Bank on April 16. Rice was part of a group of 18 authors from around the world who wrote the chapter pertaining to agriculture, forestry, and other land use. In an interview, he discussed some of the recommendations made by the authors.

Most greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, although deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse gases act like a blanket around the Earth, trapping energy in the atmosphere and causing it to warm. This is called the greenhouse effect and is natural and necessary to support life on Earth. However, a buildup of greenhouse gases can change Earth's climate.

“Agriculture globally contributes about 10 to 12 percent to greenhouse gas emissions,” Rice said. “If you add in forestry it moves it up to around 25 percent. Agriculture is significant but not the major contributor and has declined slightly, percentage-wise, since the last report in 2007, not so much because agriculture has changed that much but because the energy sector is contributing more.”

IPCC Assessment Reports Background

“The IPCC was started in the late 1980s when the first President Bush signed with other countries that climate change was an issue for the planet,” said Rice, who added that this latest report is one of a series that has come out every seven years. “Our chapter addresses agriculture’s role in the future of the emission of greenhouse gases.”

This is the fifth assessment report, said Rice, who also served on the fourth report which received the Nobel Peace Prize. Overall, the panel includes three working groups -- one studying the science involved in climate change, one studying the adaptation to climate change and one studying the mitigation of climate change which is the group Rice’s team is part of. About 240 scientists, including specialists in forestry, land use, social science, economics and others, contributed to the third group report’s 16 chapters.

“It’s important to remember that we’re not creating new science but rather assessing the current state of the science on how agriculture, forestry and land use contribute to and can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” Rice said. They conducted literature reviews and summarized key points of the science that’s occurred since the last report in 2007.

He acknowledged that the words “climate change” can be controversial among some people, but added, “As far as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations in the atmosphere, I don’t think there’s any controversy. Those are true measurements. The science is really solid on that. What people might question is, what’s the impact of those greenhouse gases?”

“It is certainly clear by 97 percent of those climate scientists that the increases in greenhouse gases such as CO2, nitrous oxide and methane, have resulted in about a 1.5 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures. That’s an important point, that it’s global,” he said. “There’s a lot of variation around the globe. In time our atmosphere goes through natural cycles and what the scientists are saying is that what we’re doing is enhancing those cycles.”

Rice said that even the cold weather in the United States this past winter might make sense in relation to climate change because the rest of the globe was warmer. Because of that, weather patterns in the Arctic Circle were affected which impacted the U.S. 

Key Recommendations for Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use

Soil carbon sequestration – One of the recommendations coming out of this and previous reports is that carbon be sequestered through land management changes, Rice said of practices that hold carbon in the soil. Through reduced tillage in farming – no-till being the prime example – and systems using cover crops and residue, those are major ways agriculture can reduce the emission of greenhouse gases because carbon dioxide is being taken up by the plant materials and stored in the soil.

“It turns out that (carbon sequestration) has multiple benefits. If you increase the carbon content, you improve the quality of the soil. It makes it more productive, less prone to erosion and the organic matter helps hold water so it provides some adaptation to the droughts and heat we have in Kansas,” Rice said.

Although the practice of not tilling the soil (no-till) started in the United States, two other countries, Brazil and Argentina, are the world leaders in no-till, said Rice, adding that 80 percent or more of agricultural land in Brazil and Argentina are farmed using no-till systems.

“In the U.S., some estimates are 25-30 percent (in no-till) but that’s not continuous no-till,” he said. “We’re probably at about 10 to 15 percent continuous no-till, so there’s a huge opportunity in the U.S. for our role to manage our own emissions, but there’s also opportunity around the world where no-till has been less well received, to take action in this way.”

Promoting product use with low emissions – This recommendation pertains mostly to the forestry sector, Rice said. Cement is a major emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gas, so the authors suggested that wood products or others with lower emissions than cement be considered where cement has traditionally been used.

In addition, however, agriculture’s use of fossil energy could be reduced as a mitigation step, Rice said:  “When we make agriculture more efficient and use less tillage, we’re also using less energy. We can make agriculture more efficient and more profitable in this way because energy is a significant cost. So it has the benefit of reducing emissions, direct and indirect, and therefore increasing profitability.

“That’s one of the unusual aspects for our sector, is that land is used for multiple things – agriculture, forestry, and ecosystem services, including water quality and wildlife. So this sector has some opportunities to help improve the quality of land resources as well as mitigating climate change.”

Increasing crop yields and livestock feeding efficiency. Rice described this proposal as reducing inputs while maintaining or increasing outputs, which makes production more efficient.

For U.S. farmers, he said, nitrogen makes up about 40 percent of their inputs: “That’s not true around the world but we can improve that. In livestock emissions, U.S. and Europe have made strides to make livestock production more efficient but in some other parts of the world, lower quality of animal plus poor forage quality leaves much room for improvement in livestock efficiency.”

Pursuing changing human diets away from food animal products – Rice acknowledged that this recommendation may be controversial, but the authors determined that changing human diets away from food animal products could help in mitigating greenhouse gasses.

“Methane emissions from livestock is a major contributor to agriculture’s footprint,” Rice said. “Approximately 40 percent of agriculture’s emissions are due to livestock and if we could reduce livestock that would reduce emissions. The report acknowledges that there are social and political barriers to all of these options. Certainly the consumption of meat would be a social barrier. Traditionally as countries increase their personal income, meat or protein consumption goes up.”

Because livestock production is a contributor to greenhouse gases, he said, it had to be put on the table.

Reducing food waste - “Another thing that’s easier to accomplish is cutting back on food waste,” he said, adding that 30 to 40 percent of food that’s produced is not used.

“Agriculture’s in a unique position,” Rice said. “If you look at the mitigation options in the next 20 to 30 years, if agriculture implemented all of those mitigation practices around the world, it would come close to mitigating all of agriculture’s contributions to greenhouse gasses so it would have a net zero effect, plus a lot of these things would make agriculture more efficient.”

He said the report will be shared with policy makers who next meet in Paris in 2015. Those individuals will come up with policies for countries to implement aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.  

“Kansas has always had drought, heat trends and cold events. A lot of these mitigation options are things we should be doing anyway – improving soil quality, reducing erosion – so this effort is going to help Kansas agriculture whether you agree that humans are having an effect on climate change,” Rice said. “A lot of the things we’re talking about are things that you should be doing for the environment as well as things that are profitable for the farmer, including increasing efficiency and reducing tillage.”

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toronto  |  April, 17, 2014 at 06:15 PM

What's to "believe" or "deny" when science has never been 100% certain that THE END IS NEAR but they are 100% certain the planet is not flat and still after 32 years of research only 95% certain CO2 could flatten the earth? Don't tell my kids science "believes" as much as you "believers" do. Your eagerness to "believe" is sickening.

new york  |  April, 18, 2014 at 06:24 AM

“Agriculture globally contributes about 10 to 12 percent to greenhouse gas emissions,” Rice said. I know lets just eliminate agriculture, who needs it anyway. Let them eat sand! What percent would the entertainment industry contribute? All those jets flying just for the pleasure of someone and yet agriculture is the concern. President Obama uses more fuel for one vacation than most farmers use in a year but somehow we are the ones vilified.

April, 18, 2014 at 10:02 AM

Global warming is out since the globe didn't warm over the last 15+ years, so now it's climate change. Over the last four billion years the climate has always changed, so that's a safe bet. The most massive climate changes happened without man. Man couldn't change the climate if he tried, he is a speck in the universe.

siquijorisland  |  April, 18, 2014 at 10:14 AM

read one or a few chapters of one of the NIPCC reports, and ask if what you read is logical, factual, and relevant to the debate. See if the UN or its many apologists take into account the science and evidence NIPCC summarizes, and then decide whether its predictions of “of death, injury, and disrupted livelihoods” is science or fiction.

michigan  |  April, 19, 2014 at 05:17 AM

I believe this "science" is a relative thing. It was not that long ago that these yahoos thought we were entering another ice age. That evidence was irrefutable as well. I am concerned that we will be forced to subsidize "Big Wind" and digesters because of this "science."

April, 19, 2014 at 05:39 PM

The IPCC reports stated 95-100% certainty that climate change is manmade. They leave that 0.01% of uncertainty in case all the laws of physics and the most basic chemical reactions that we base all of science on somehow turn out to be wrong. That's what it would take for climate scientists to be wrong about global warming being manmade. Scientists have understood the phenomenon of global warming since the mid-19th century. It only became a subject for debate in the world of politics and the right-wing media when fossil fuel corporations found their profits being threatened by it and ginned up a billion dollar-a -year denial operation modeled directly on the one big tobacco mounted to deny the science that smoking causes lung cancer. They have even hired one of the same crooked PR firms, Heartland, and two of their same old "scientists" still willing to deny the science for money. Tobacco fooled the public for decades and millions died as a result. Hundreds of millions will die when climate change really hits. It's all about corporate greed.

Believe It    
IN  |  April, 20, 2014 at 07:59 PM

Agriculture is not being vilified and the fact that earth is round is old news. WHY are so many people in denial about climate change? How could humans not be changing the atmosphere? Look around some history. The 20th century was amazing in terms of the changes that were made and the practices that were adopted. Most of them were good, but there are costs to burning fossil fuels. That's old news too. I can see BIG OIL being in denial, and a certain contingent of politicians(mostly those connected with BIG OIL and BIG MONEY). But for the rest of us who have to live here, and who hope our kids will be able to live here, it shouldn't be that hard to grasp.

Wyoming  |  April, 21, 2014 at 08:17 AM

I have to admit a couple of months ago, it was sub zero and now I have a few plants coming up. I don't suppose that changing of seasons instead of changing climate could account for that. Interestingly no one ever mentions changing growing seasons in their discussions? Could that possibly be because growing seasons are not getting longer?

New York  |  April, 21, 2014 at 12:20 PM

Oh but in fact growing seasons are getting longer. It is well established that flowering dates of lilacs in New York are at least 15 days earlier over the past I believe it was 50 years. We are growing longer season corn in upstate New York. The growing zone maps from the USDA have increased many areas that were zone 3 to zone 4 in NY state. Just because there in seasonal variation does not mean that there is not an overall trend towards change

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  April, 21, 2014 at 04:02 PM

The climate has changed in the past. The climate is changing now. The climate will change in the future. Not that we got it out of the way that I am not a doubter of climate change, let's see some "scientific fact" that it is the greenhouse gases doing all of it. And you think a guy named Rice would be informed enough that rice alone is shown to contribute 13 to 20% of all global greenhouse gases. This is what I have problems with on the so called "climate scientists", this guy in his report shows agriculture contributes 10 to 12% greenhouse gases. Does he think growing rice isn't an agricultural activity? And before you jump on me just jump on BING and type in "rice paddy methane emissions" and read away. As soon as they get their stories straight and can actually prove their theories maybe intelligent people might actually start to believe in them.

SD  |  April, 21, 2014 at 07:01 PM

Back in 'the olden days' didn't some of learn in school that carbon dioxide was what trees and other plants 'breathed in', and exhaled oxygen or some such thing which humans then inhale? Nice symbiotic relationship, imo. And aren't we mere humans arogant to believe our efforts can trump even one volcano in messing up the atmosphere? Add in some other acts of nature, and we humans just don't stand much chance of having true influence over climate change, do we???? It all makes me wonder, who is to blame for the 'climate change' which brought us the era of dinosaurs, and who took it away???? Same for the ice age. And who knows how many other 'ages' or 'climate changes' have happened over the life of this Earth, anyway?

Austin, TX  |  April, 22, 2014 at 09:07 AM

Well now, let's see here: if agriculture contributes about 10% of global greenhouse gases and livestock is 40% of agriculture's 10%, that makes livestock production, all of it, responsible for only about 4% of global greenhouse gas. How can evangelists suggest livestock farming is among the most serious destroyers of planets and galaxies? I think what we need is less political pontificating, less panicked doom-saying and more living breathing role models. Show me the population that has successfully given up eating (and all the dreadful planet crushing farming that goes along with it) and I might consider it. But only after the gasbags at IPCC give up their cars, jet travel, electric appliances and central heating/air conditioning. Lead by example and we will follow as we always have.

April, 22, 2014 at 09:15 AM

Going back to the olden days is exactly what we are talking about here. If all the common people would just go back to living like they did back in the day when trees still consumed CO2 and polar bears still ate seal pups and farmers were all poor downtrodden serfs on the feudal estate, then the rest of us could live comfortably and free from worry about our mortality. It really irks me when I'm driving around in my Mercedes to see all those common people doing things that damage my environment. The sooner we get them back to the traditional living standards the better for the rest of us.

Ed & Emma    
April, 23, 2014 at 05:01 AM

....too many humans on the planet...

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