So, what does the Paris Agreement mean for European agriculture?

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The Agreement in Paris on Climate Change concluded on 12/12/2015 seeks to limit global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees, and to pursue efforts to achieve 1.5 degrees through binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

It is up to the individual countries that ratify the Agreement to implement the commitments on a national basis. For the EU that means sticking to the commitments as presented by the EU to COP 21 in the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). This now becomes a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as a result of the agreement in Paris. There the EU has committed itself to a further reduction of EU Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions) by at least 40% by 2030 in comparison with 1990, and by 80-95% by 2050.

Commission Communication on Paris Agreement follow-up

In its Communication of the 2/3/2016 the Commission has laid out the follow-up to Paris. Implementation by all parties to the Agreement is crucial for success.

The Communication goes through the different areas for the EU in order to implement the Agreement underlining the need to continue to take the lead and maintain momentum. The Communication stresses the significant investments, innovation, changes in practices that are necessary with the consequent fundamental changes in the EU economic model and structure. Energy production, consumption, energy efficiency and renewables are key elements in this process. In this respect the Commission stresses the importance the regular 5 year Review clauses. An idea suggested by the EU, where Contracting Parties will be subject to examination of their progress in meeting emission reduction commitments based on common accounting and transparency provisions still to be defined. It provides a dynamic mechanism to take stock and strengthen ambition over time. Starting from 2023, Parties will come together every five years in a “global stocktake” to consider progress in emissions reductions, adaptation and support provided and received in view of the long-term goals of the Agreement.

The Ministers of Environment discussed the Communication on the 4/3/2016. Some Member States thought the Communication was not ambitious enough in light of the switch to the maximum 1.5 ° increase in global temperature. Several ministers urged an earlier stock-take to be ready for a special UN report in 2018 to get on track for net zero emissions in the second half of the century.This would mean quicker emission reductions. Other Member States warned against with the present ambitions based on the Council conclusions from October 2014 as already very demanding.

In the Communication the Commission confirms that the legislative Proposals on the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) from July 2015 will be followed up by proposals also covering agriculture.

So what does the Paris Agreement mean for European agriculture?

The Paris Agreement does not as such have specific commitments relating to agriculture. It does however refer to agriculture indirectly as stated in the Preamble: “Recognizing the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change”.

How is this paragraph to be interpreted? Is agriculture to be treated lightly in relation to the reduction commitments or does this only targeting more vulnerable developing countries. For certain the farming organizations will seek to use this passage to soften the burden on agriculture.

Under EU legislation agriculture is covered by the so-called Effort Sharing Decision (ESD). Sectors under the ESD are transport, heating of buildings, non-CO2 emissions from agriculture and waste. Overall ESD emissions have to reduce emissions by 30% compared to 2005. In addition GHG emissions and carbon sequestration from Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) will be included in the CC policy for 2030.


With the Paris Agreement as a very timely background Farm Europe organized an Event on the 14/12/2015 with the Irish Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney. The minister outlined how Irish agricultural policy already to-day is very active in undertaking mitigation and adaptation efforts in relation GHG emissions from agricultural activity and from LULUCF. The focus is to be the most Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) as possible which in Irish terms translates into having the lowest GHG emissions per unit of production/output. Research efforts, based on a significant 4 Billion € budget, and education of farmers are undertaken with this objective in mind already delivering positive results. At the same time Ireland is undertaking major afforestation with the view to building up sequestration (sinks) of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Up till now 10 % of agricultural land has been planted with new forest. The idea is to provide space/credits for the expected increase in the animal production with consequent GHG emissions as laid out in the Irish “Food Wise 2025” program. See the Press Release.

The Irish efforts should be seen in connection with the Conclusions in October 2014 by the European Council (EC) on the Future CC Framework up to 2030: A reduction of GHG emissions by at least 40 %, for the ESD to reduce by 30% compared to 2005 and to incorporate LULUCF. The EC has established the principle by which the richer Member State (MS) have to undertake the biggest reductions in GHG emissions. Those MS with high average GDP per inhabitant like Ireland have to reduce their emissions by up to 40 %. At the same time the EC said: “targets for the Member States with a GDP per capita above the EU average will be relatively adjusted to reflect cost-effectiveness in a fair and balanced manner”.

Agricultural GHG emissions have already fallen significantly by 24% from 1990 to 2012, but based on Business as Usual (BAU), the drop in the GHG will be modest (around only 4 %). The EC has recognized this in its conclusions : “The multiple objectives of the agriculture and land use sector, with their lower mitigation potential, should be acknowledged, as well as the need to ensure coherence between the EU’s food security and climate change objectives “.

With this somewhat ambiguous wording it is consequently not clear how agriculture and LULUCF will be handled in practice under the 2030 policy framework.

Affluent MS like Ireland, Denmark and France with high agricultural production and consequent high absolute GHG emissions will have to undertake major reduction efforts. However there may be tradeoffs with other non-agricultural sectors under the ESD and possible recognition of the beneficial effect of carbon sequestration in forests and soils in relation to agriculture. How LULUCF is to be incorporated is at this stage an open question. One thing is certain: there is no doubt that the challenge for agriculture is going to be considerable and a need for agriculture to obtain high energy efficiency and low GHG emissions per unit of production.

GHG emissions

GHG emissions from agriculture primarily in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) amount to about 10 % whilst LULUCF primarily in the form of CO2 amount to about 14%- in total 24 % of total EU GHG emissions.

The most important GHG emissions relate to agricultural soils, wetlands, peats and forests in the form of CO2. Large quantities of CO2 are emitted by ploughing and use of fossil fuels, artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The same is true for wetlands dried and peats converted to farmland not to mention deforestation.

On the positive side agriculture sequesters CO2 in soils and in plants. Grassland is especially important storing 34 % of the global stock of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems whilst forests store 39 % (Nathaniel Page, Fundatia Adept). (According to the ELO the EU soils contains the equivalent of 275 gigatons CO2 or more than 50 times the annual EU GHG emissions).

Same thinking is behind the French government initiative of ‘4 per 1,000’.”To quote the French minister of agriculture Stéphane Le Foll “The idea is simple: to increase the amount of CO2 captured by the soil by four grams per kilo of soil. If the whole planet managed to do this, the world’s carbon dioxide emissions would be cancelled out in one year”.

There is a whole range of farming practices available, which are subject to continuous refinement and development, to make farming more Climate Smart.

With regard to soil management (examples):

  • Avoid drainage of wetlands and conversion of peatlands
  • Practice 5 year Crop rotation with reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers
  • Undertake extensification by way of reduced use of external inputs (fertilizers and pesticides)
  • Planting of legume crops fixing nitrogen and substituting imported soybeans
  • Soil/Green cover with catch crops and reduction of bare fallow
  • Reduced or zero tillage (widespread practice in Argentina)
  • Use of natural pastures for livestock rearing and less intensive grazing
  • Retaining crop residues like straw, compost on the field
  • Incorporation in the field of organic matter like animal manure and sewage sludge
  • Afforestation and reforestation

As for CH4 and N2O the following mitigation steps (examples) can be taken:

  • Genetic breeding of animals resulting in lower enteric fermentation in ruminants and lower CH4 emissions
  • More efficient use and development of feedstuffs with higher conversion rates combined with animal breeding resulting in higher or unchanged production with fewer animals.
  • Use of plant breeding with higher yields protecting against heat, drought and pests.
  • Better manure management with covered storage and more efficient spreading as natural fertilizer on the fields substituting oil based products.
  • Integrated Farming
  • Precision farming (GPS) and drones

Further on the farm measures resulting in reduced GHG emissions

  • Increased use of manure and silage as biomass for on the farm production of electricity with surplus of electricity sold to the public grid
  • Installation of windmills and solar panels
  • Higher energy efficiency in heating or cooling and machinery. Better insulation and storage
  • Speed up a move away from first generation to second generation biofuels based on using animal waste, biomass like straw and rapid growing energy rich crops like Miscanthus (switch grass) or willow and use of forestry waste and wood pellets in order to ensure sustainability and environmental integrity

In summary there are many measures that can be taken to meet the challenge. This requires however continued innovation and investments to reach the goal of sustainable intensification of agricultural production.

For agriculture and forestry the outcome of Paris COP 21 and subsequent EU legislation to be proposed before the summer break in 2016 for the ESD and LULUCF will be very important in terms of sustainability and providing food security at the same time. In this respect a very important question is the degree of flexibility in relation to GHG emissions that will be granted to agriculture given the reduced potential for climate change mitigation compared to other sectors.

The first de facto review of COP 21 country commitments is likely to be based on the 2018 UN report in 2018 to get on track for net zero emissions. It can be expected that the pressure on the EU to go beyond the at least 40% reduction commitment will be strong given that the sum of commitments agreed on in Paris will not meet the objective of limiting global temperature to + 2° with consequences also for EU agriculture.

Agriculture risks being affected by climate change and the upcoming legislative framework more than other sectors. This requires in my view a serious rethinking of our Common Agricultural Policy, where the emphasis increasingly will be on delivering Public Goods for Public money in addition to agriculture’s role of providing food security. Climate Change mitigation and adaptation will entail costs and income foregone (externalities) for farmers which will be difficult to cover by market prices. The CAP must be tailored to support the EU’s GHG emission targets and the role EU farmers play in meeting that objective.