It is good news that the critical role of food security and cutting agriculture, food and land-use (AFOLU) emissions has been recognised at COP28 with the signature of the Emirates Declaration. The declaration, endorsed by 134 heads of state and government, stresses that any path to fully achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement must include agriculture and food systems1. Nations should now include agriculture and food system emissions in their plans to tackle climate change – also called Nationally Determined Contributions2. They should also aim to make sure that policies and public support for agriculture and food systems, finance and scientific research are orientated towards this goal, alongside promoting resilience, productivity, livelihoods, nutrition, water efficiency and human, animal and ecosystem health.
The signing of the declaration is a good first step but now it’s time to turn promises into action. At any COP, carbon dioxide dominates discussions and planning. Yet for agriculture, food systems and rural areas it’s more complex – methane and nitrous oxide are the dominant greenhouses gases (GHG) driving global heating. Unlike carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, these gases come from many different sources including nitrogen fertilizers applied to agricultural soils and cattle. This makes action on reducing AFOLU climate impacts ‘messy’ or downright difficult. Adding to this complexity is that rural areas and communities – both wild and human - are at the forefront of climate impacts.
Ricardo’s agriculture and land team is working widely in this realm and, despite the occasional discomfort, we are leaning into this complexity at multiple scales from the farmer’s field to the regional and national level. We count emissions at a field level for agribusinesses, we perform quality control for the UK agriculture emissions inventory and work out the implications of country level policy change for carbon philanthropists. Our desk-based research projects have delved deeper into technologies to reduce methane emissions from Scottish livestock and looked at how targets for nitrogen use efficiency in agriculture could drive emissions reductions. Our team answers the phone to farmers who need advice on what to do next to balance business profits with climate action. Out of the office, we are supporting multi-country stakeholder engagement to change policy, such as listening to stories on nitrogen impacts across South Asia. This colourful mix means that our advice on how to reduce emissions is rooted in scientific understanding in the context of real-life farming.
But agriculture is not just about machines and animals in fields. It’s also about people. In much of the world, it is about people whose focus is the survival of their families and their cultures. To support positive, long term change we need to help create a brighter story for them to look forward to, and that must include their health and the ecosystems they rely on. It’s great that health is playing a role at this year’s COP. We are working with the Institute of Medicine on how ammonia emissions from agriculture impact farmer health. Yes, ammonia isn’t a GHG but this is where the complexity gets interesting. Being clever with ammonia will deliver human, biodiversity and climate positives: many farming practices which lower ammonia emissions also increase nitrogen use efficiency and cut nitrous oxide emissions creating an often-overlooked win-win-win for climate, air quality and health. Burning of agricultural residues contributes to global heating and is impacting the health of children in farming communities, and rising temperatures are making farm labouring more difficult. Focusing on health concerns and benefits could perhaps be a powerful motivator for farm practice change. And embracing complexity can help find the win-win-win solutions.
Food and farming worldwide are emotional, cultural, wrapped up in belief systems and legacy – all with an eye to the future. Finding solutions for climate and biodiversity issues in this space needs to embrace that. Let’s all lean in.
Ricardo's experts are participating in talks and events at this years' conference to contribute to ongoing discussions on solving the global climate crisis. Find out more about Ricardo's activities at COP28.
Visit our services page to find out about Ricardo’s work in the food and agriculture sector.