New UN accounting methodology will allow farmers to account for their emissions reductions. They should now be able participate in emissions trading systems - as climate goals are being hammered out in Marrakesh.
When people think about the causes of climate change, they often think about the biggest, most obvious things that generate greenhouse gas emissions such as power plants, heavy industry and airplanes. But one of the major causes of emissions often goes unnoticed - agriculture.
Agriculture, including forestry, fisheries and livestock production, generates around a fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Yet so far, it has remained one of the hardest emissions generators to tackle because the effects are harder to measure.
For this reason, livestock agriculture has not been included in the carbon trading markets set up around the world over the past 10 years.
Entering the market
At first, this might seem like a good thing for farmers. After all, carbon markets such as the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in the EU require industrial companies to purchase permits in order to emit carbon. Not being involved in carbon markets means savings for farmers, right?
Not necessarily. A lot of industries have actually been able to make money through the carbon markets by reducing emissions, while others have benefited from investment by companies who can see their carbon market burden reduced by investing in climate-change-tackling projects. Without a verifiable way to measure emissions, agriculture has been shut out of these market benefits.
A lot of industries have actually been able to make money through the carbon markets by reducing emissions
That is, until now. Last week, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) unveiled a new methodology for smallholder dairy farmers to measure and verify their greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
Certified by the Gold Standard, an independent body that evaluates climate projects under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, it for the first time clearly identifies areas within dairy production where greenhouse emissions can be curbed - by changing feed composition or feeding practices, for example, or by improving the energy efficiency of equipment. It then outlines specific processes to be followed in measuring and reporting those reductions.
Carolyn Opio, the lead technical officer at FAO who developed this methodology, says that with a solid measurement system, it is only a matter of time before smallholder farmers start receiving financial benefit from carbon markets.
"Nobody will invest in emission reduction projects if they're not certain if you can measure and verify the reductions," she told DW.
Hot topic at in Marrakesh
Opio says the new tool will be discussed on the sidelines of the UN climate summit currently taking place in Marrakech, Morocco. The summit, which will iron out the details of the landmark Paris accord reached last year, began yesterday and will continue over the next two weeks.
"Much of the focus at the summit will be on agriculture - that's what we've been hearing so far from the key messages coming out of Marrakesh,” said Opio. "In terms of the discussion on climate finance, particularly when you're talking about developing countries that have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also have to think about developing their agriculture sector, a tool like this is really key."
One of the biggest concerns of developing countries at the annual UN climate summits has been that emissions reductions requirements that are too onerous will stifle their development. When it comes to agriculture this is a real concern, because a growing population means more mouths to feed. In the area of milk production alone, output will have to grow by 144 million tons by 2025 to meet rising demand.
Opio says the methodology is able to tackle both of these challenges - the need to make agriculture more productive by increasing yields, and the need to cut agriculture's emissions footprint.
Why the tool can boost investment
According to the FAO, the certification will allow smallholder dairy operations to receive internationally-accepted carbon credits in exchange for emission reductions. These credits can be sold on carbon markets, creating a financial incentive for dairy farmers to put greener practices in place.
The FAO recommends strategic changes in housing and feeding animals, for instance by managing their manure and selecting breeds that produce more milk with equal inputs. These changes can both increase yield and reduce environmental damage.
The tool was developed by observing agricultural practices in Kenya, a prime example of the type of developing country the FAO is hoping to help.
Dairy farmers will be able to take part in carbon markets
Kenya's livestock sector is dominated by smallholder farmers who have limited access to productivity-enhancing technologies. The new tool allows the Kenyan government to track, quantify and certify that projects to increase productivity actually result in lower emission intensity. The methodology is now part of the country's effort to sustainably intensify its dairy industry under its Climate Action Plan, which it is putting together as part of the Paris Agreement.
So far, estimates for greenhouse gas emissions from milk production have varied widely across the world. Some countries have production systems that emit as little as 1.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of milk (CO2e/kg), according to the FAO, while other countries have systems that emit five times as much.
Opio says the new tool will hopefully get some convergence in these widely varying numbers. "We've been talking about how to reduce agriculture emissions for a very long time," she said. "I hope, at least for the dairy sector, that this tool will help drive real change."