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date: 27 May 2017

Economics of Low Carbon Agriculture

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Climate change is already having a significant impact on agriculture through greater weather variability and the increasing frequency of extreme events, and international policy is thus rightly focused on adapting and transforming agricultural and food production systems. But agriculture also has a recognized role in terms of climate change mitigation. The sector accounts for approximately a third of total global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions from land use change and deforestation). Farmers and land managers have a significant role to play because emissions reduction measures can be taken to increase soil carbon sequestration, manage fertilizer application, and improve ruminant nutrition and waste. The global significance of such actions should not be underestimated. Existing research shows that some of these measures are low cost relative to the costs of reducing emissions in other sectors, such as energy or heavy industry. Indeed, avoiding excessive fertilizer application alone could abate 2–6% of China’s total emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, while saving significant input costs currently born by farmers. But the mitigation potential is hindered by the biophysical complexity of agricultural systems and of institutional and behavioral barriers retarding the adoption of these measures in developed and developing countries. This includes formal agreement on how agricultural mitigation should be treated in national obligations, commitments or targets, and the nature of policy incentives that can be deployed in different farming systems and along food chains beyond the farm gate. These climate challenges overlap with a growing concern about global food security, which highlights additional stressors including demographic change, natural resource scarcity, and economic convergence in consumption preferences, particularly for livestock products. The focus on reducing emissions through reduced food consumption and waste is a more recent agenda, and is proving more controversial than dealing with production-related emissions.