Frequently Asked Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 1

August 2, 2012
By Chad Kruger

Some time ago I was asked to present at the Cultivating Regional Food Security Conference in Seattle on the topic of “research debunking food system assumptions related to climate change and food”. In preparing the presentation, I decided to address the five most common questions addressed to me regarding agriculture, food and climate change. The five questions are:

  1. The EPA says agriculture only accounts for 6% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Shouldn’t we focus our efforts on bigger problems such as coal fired power plants and automobile emissions instead?
  2. Do “food miles” – the distance that food travels from producer to consumer – really matter to the climate?
  3. Is organic farming “climate-friendly”?
  4. Are cows really worse for the climate than cars?
  5. Will climate change lead to a food system collapse?

Each of these questions is worthy of a treatise that will ultimately prove inconclusive, but in this five-part series I will attempt to provide a succinct discussion that will help clarify the issue.

  1. The EPA says agriculture only accounts for 6% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Shouldn’t we focus our efforts on bigger problems such as coal fired power plants and automobile emissions instead?

It is true that EPA (2009) estimates that agriculture accounts for approximately 6% of total US GHG emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) estimates that agriculture accounts for between 10 and 12% of total global emissions. The Washington Department of Ecology (2010) estimates that agriculture accounts for approximately 6% of the state’s total GHG emissions. These are relatively small GHG emissions sources according to these inventories. However, it’s important to understand the purpose of these inventories and how they attribute emissions before concluding whether any given source is important or not.

The purpose of a jurisdictional GHG inventory is to help policy-makers understand the scope and extent of emissions within the jurisdiction to inform potential policy decisions aimed at reducing emissions. There are many possible methodologies (which I won’t cover here) for conducting an inventory as well as many possible strategies for presenting inventory results, including by type of greenhouse gas, economic sector or firm, or by “service” or “product”. Regulatory agencies often present inventory results based on the concept of “point of regulation” – those points of leverage within the economy that are most efficient for conventional pollution regulation mechanisms (ie. it’s easier to regulate a handful of fuel blenders than a million cars). This strategy is useful as it provides insight into how regulation can be used to manage pollution. However, it is NOT very useful for understanding WHY those greenhouse gases are emitted – and therefore systematical approaches to how emissions might most efficiently be reduced.

While the direct emissions from agricultural production are relatively small, the total emissions (direct and indirect) associated with producing, transporting, processing, storing, preparing, and managing wastes from food are NOT small. For instance, the World Bank (2007) estimates that total food related GHG emissions are between 26 and 35% of total global GHG emissions. Not only does this change how we view the scope of emissions, but it raises an even greater set of complexities that need to be considered in a comprehensive approach to reducing carbon emissions. I’ll discuss a few specific examples of these complexities in future installments of this series.

4 comments on “Frequently Asked Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 1”

  1. Pingback:Frequently Asked Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 2 - Organics | Washington State University

  2. Pingback:Frequently Asked Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 3 - Organics | Washington State University

  3. Pingback:Frequently Ask Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 4 - Organics | Washington State University

  4. Pingback:Frequently Ask Questions about climate change and agriculture: Part 5 - Organics | Washington State University

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