Agricultural sector and climate change

Agricultural sector and climate change

By Gerardo Honty

In recent years, a new factor of concern has appeared in the sector:

greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. The main concern is centered on the way in which climate change is affecting these productive items: droughts, changes in rainfall patterns, hailstorms, increased temperature, etc .; but also in the contribution of its emissions to the phenomenon of climate change itself. Most of the Latin American countries have incorporated specific legislation or policies and have created institutional mechanisms to address the new problem.

But agricultural development is also closely related to another highly relevant sector for climate change: forestry. The agricultural frontier has expanded - and will surely continue to expand - at the expense of forests. The loss of forests causes CO2 emissions while the new afforestation captures CO2 from the atmosphere. For this reason, from the perspective of analyzes on climate change, these aspects are considered together under a large sector called AFOLU, which stands for Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry and other Land Uses.

The GHG emissions from all AFOLU activities are very significant in Latin America, considerably more than what occurs in most other regions of the world. Globally, emissions from the Agricultural and Forestry sectors represent a quarter of global emissions. However, in Latin America, this percentage exceeds 50% and that is why it has become essential for the region.

In 2012, the total GHG emissions of Latin America were 4,560 MtCO2e [1].

Disaggregating them by category, 900 MtCO2e (20%) came from Agriculture, while 1,430 MtCO2e (31%) were caused by emissions from deforestation [2]. The main gases emitted by agriculture are: N2O (nitrous oxide) - derived from the application of synthetic fertilizers in most of the items - and CH4 (methane) originated particularly in rice crops. In the case of Livestock the main gas is CH4

(methane) product of the enteric fermentation of livestock and manure. In the forestry sector, the main gas is the CO2 that is released into the atmosphere in cases of cutting and mainly in the processes of deforestation of forests and natural forests.

The agricultural development of the last decades in the region has increased the livestock frontier at the expense of the forests, which has not only generated greater emissions but has also favored the conditions for the local impacts of climate change to be greater; for example, that floods have more severe effects. On the other hand, agricultural monocultures have expanded (particularly soybean), in many cases causing deforestation by themselves or as a result of the displacement of livestock. These monocultures end up reducing the natural adaptive capacity of agricultural ecosystems, also contributing to aggravate the effects of climate change.

The influence of international negotiations

In the international negotiations on climate change there are several issues that intersect in the discussions on agricultural issues. On the one hand, Adaptation, that is, what measures are adopted to try to reduce the effects of climate change on agricultural production. On the other hand, Mitigation, that is, how the contribution of this sector to global GHG emissions is reduced. And finally the Financing: who should bear the costs of Adaptation and Mitigation of the sector.

Last December, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) of the Convention on Climate Change, meeting in Paris, decided that countries should present, by 2020, their Predetermined Contributions at the National level (CPN). These should indicate the efforts they are willing to make both to reduce GHG emissions and to adapt their production systems to the new situation.

This decision has a long history so that Latin American countries have been working on aspects of Mitigation and Adaptation to climate change in the agricultural and forestry sectors. Before the Paris meeting, the countries had to present their INDCs (Nationally Determined and Expected Contributions) and most Latin American countries included measures related to the agricultural sector [3].

However, the countries of the region have argued in the negotiations that both mitigation and adaptation costs in developing countries must be assumed by developed countries under the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. For this reason, most of the proposed actions are conditioned on the international financial contribution.

Of the actions or goals that Latin American countries are willing to carry out with their own effort, the following can be cited as an example:

-Uruguay, the only country that includes mitigation in the livestock sector, is committed to reducing the intensity of methane and nitrous oxide emissions in

33% and 41%, respectively, relative to each kg of meat by 2030, using 1990 as the base year.

-Eight countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay) mentioned that they will use more biofuels from biomass. Brazil has a specific goal for biodiesel: to increase the proportion of biodiesel in the energy matrix by 18% by 2030.

-Argentina highlights different initiatives that the agricultural sector such as direct sowing, crop rotation and precision agriculture, although it does not establish specific goals.

-Brazil aims to restore 12 million hectares of degraded grasslands by 2030, along with the improvement of five million hectares of integrated agrosilvopastoral systems.

-Costa Rica proposes various measures to manage carbon sinks (land use plans, reforestation, avoided deforestation) as a mitigation option.

-Uruguay intends to capture 13.2 MtCO2 in the Forestry sector.

In general, all countries propose more ambitious goals as long as they are assisted with the financial resources to carry them out. This will be one of the axes of the debates in the coming years. But you will not be the only one when it comes to AFOLU activities.

Argentina and Uruguay, two of the main Latin American agricultural producers, have argued in the negotiations that emissions derived from food production should be considered differently from other emissions. Their argument is based on Article 2 of the Convention, which states that food production should not be threatened by climate change. This argument has been reinforced in the Paris Agreement, which stipulates in Article 2 that “development with low greenhouse gas emissions must be promoted, in a way that does not compromise food production”. So it is to be expected that in the negotiations that are going to take place in the coming years, this will be a central issue for the agricultural countries of the region.

On the other hand, several agricultural producing countries - and not only in the Latin American region - have been discussing for years the methodologies for calculating and measuring emissions from livestock and agriculture.

In particular the way to estimate the global warming potential of methane and nitrous oxide.

Agricultural sustainability

Agricultural and livestock production, as well as deforestation processes have accumulated negative impacts on the Latin American environment for several decades. The phenomenon of climate change only aggravates the situation of already quite deteriorated ecosystems. The political repercussions that derive from international negotiations add a new sign of the need for a change of orientation in the modes of production of the agricultural sector.

In this sense, the phenomenon of climate change is an opportunity for the governments of Latin America to advance in public policies that stop deforestation and promote more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. It is also an opportunity for civil society, concerned about these issues, to propose a forestry, agricultural and livestock policy agenda with an ecological perspective.

There is already enough evidence of the local impacts of current production models and now there is also an international concern about the global impacts derived from climate change. Governments have the obligation to present National Contributions for the Adaptation and Mitigation of climate change. It is also a task for civil society to provide content of profound transformation to these productive sectors to recover degraded ecosystems and ensure the future sustainability of agriculture in the region.

Gerardo Honty is an analyst at CLAES (Latin American Center for Social Ecology)
(Originally published in the relaunch of, CLAES 'portal on rural development and sustainability)
[1] Megatons of CO2 equivalent. Unit of measurement that unifies all GHGs according to their global warming potential.
[2] Climate Data Explorer, World Resources Institute.
[3] IICA. "The agricultural sector in the contributions planned and determined at the national level of Latin America"


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