Farming Now Worse For Climate Than Deforestation, Land Use Change

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Thanks to protracted temblors in the US (and some other English-speaking nations) over the role of fossil fuels in generating climate change, many of us sometimes forget that agriculture, deforestation, and land use change (AFOLU, for short) also emit a large proportion of greenhouse gases.

Forest infographic (

Those with a rough idea of how the emissions pie divides often point to deforestation as the greatest of these three climate threats. It certainly used to be, but in an article based on 22 years of global warming data, Francesco Tubiello and colleagues from Italy, Japan, and Great Britain recently challenged that assumption.

Global Change Biology logoThe authors refined the global emission updates provided in the UN’s IPCC fifth assessment summary (2014) to include all three available AFOLU datasets (instead of the single dataset IPCC finally used). They converted carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide figures into carbon dioxide equivalents for ease of comparison. Their article was published online in Global Change Biology earlier this month. Rosamund Pearce of CarbonBrief prepared this excellent infographic.

AFOLU greenhouse gas emissions, 1990s, 2000s, 2010 (carbon Pearce from Tubiello et al.)
Greenhouse gas emissions, 1990s, 2000s, 2010 ( Pearce from Tubiello et al.)

Recranking the numbers, the researchers first found that AFOLU emissions to the anthropogenic total have declined over time. Their annual value equalled 21.2 ± 1.5% in 2010, versus the 24% presented by the IPCC. Although emissions of the AFOLU sector as a whole are dropping, emissions from agriculture are still headed in the wrong direction.

Harvested field (USDA)

Farming continues to use large amounts of both freshwater and fossil fuels. Agriculture (crop and livestock production) had a larger slice of AFOLU in 2010, contributing 11.2 ± 0.4% of total GHG emissions, compared to 10.0 ± 1.2% produced by the land use sector (including deforestation). Since the 1990s, deforestation has fallen from 12% of total anthropogenic emissions to only 8% by the new calculation.

Determined efforts such as reforestation and the 10-year reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation initiative are responsible for the drop. Tubiello and colleagues suggest that these results can further inform the current climate policy debate on land use. Along the same lines as REDD+, options for mitigation in agriculture merit more resources than we are currently devoting, they say.

The growing movement for Climate Smart Agriculture seems to have relevance here. It seeks to reverse the climate-harmful effects of farming without relying on carbon offsets. Its advocates seek to increase crop yields, store more carbon in the soil, and promote climate resilience, maximizing farm output in a changing climate and thus achieving both food security and climate change objectives. CSA proponents specify different regional and/or national emphases according to each area’s current level of agricultural development.

“Developed countries… may focus on reducing energy inputs and emissions, and look for suitable opportunities for biofuel production. Others may look at opportunities for carbon trading from agricultural production, while the least developed countries are likely to be predominantly focussed on adapting their agricultural systems to meet the challenges posed by a changing climate.”

As David Howlett of Leeds University’s Africa College says, CSA can help reduce emissions and sequester carbon, reduce pressure on forests, maintain ecosystem services and biodiversity, and produce food, fiber, and fuel crops that the world needs.

It may be instructive here to take a look at the potential post-2020 contributions of the AFOLU sector from the top eight nations in terms of emissions, production, or mitigation potential from the land. Below, we summarize characterizations coming from Halfway There, the January 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists publication by Doug Boucher and Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon that we reviewed several weeks ago.

First, the post-2020 climate mitigation potentials:

CO2 emissions post-2020 globally and in top emitting nations (

Second, brief descriptions by nation:

United States

Forest losses in eastern North America ( US potential for reducing land-sector emissions is promising. It includes demand-side strategies like reducing beef consumption (now at levels with negative consequences for public health), and reducing food waste, particularly of high-emissions foods. On the supply side, possibilities include reducing N2O emissions from overfertilization and preventing deforestation and depletion of agricultural soils. [Deforestation has been particularly severe in the southern United States.]


Indonesia is now the largest forest-sector emitter in the world, both from deforestation and the clearing of peat swamps. Reducing these emissions and restoring forests and peat lands offer major opportunities for mitigation.


China boasts a net sink in its forest sector due to large-scale reforestation efforts in recent decades. However, the country’s agriculture is a major emitter, with N2O from overfertilization and methane from rice representing important opportunities.


India’s emissions profile is distinctive: it has net sequestration in its forest sector due to past reforestation efforts, and the country’s population consumes few high-emissions foods. As a result, India’s agricultural mitigation potential is nearly all on the production (supply) side. This includes opportunities to reduce emissions of N2O from overfertilization and methane from rice.


Brazil is internationally recognized for having reduced Amazon deforestation by 75% over the past decade, but because of the country’s size there remain substantial opportunities from further reductions in deforestation, both in the Amazon and other biomes, as well as from reforestation. A major study by Brazilian researchers found that the cattle sector, which is not only the country’s largest source of direct global warming emissions (such as methane) but also the predominant driver of deforestation, is where Brazil has the greatest mitigation potential.

European Union

The EU is important to global agriculture as a producer, consumer, importer, and exporter, and it consumes high levels of emissions-intensive foods such as beef. Demand-side approaches to shifting dietary patterns and reducing food waste offer substantial opportunities for reduction.


Mexico has greatly reduced its loss of primary forests in recent years and has the potential to become a net sink through reforestation and restoration of other ecosystems. There are opportunities in agriculture as well, both on the production side and by slowing the growth of beef consumption.

Democratic Republic Of The Congo

Although it is the largest country in Africa, the DRC has relatively low levels of deforestation, ruminant emissions, and agriculture-linked soil emissions. Its major potential is in the reduction of forest and savanna emissions associated with selective logging and fires, an area in which other central African nations have made considerable progress in recent years. The median estimate of the DRC’s potential is 0.02 Gt CO2/year both in 2020 and 2030.

Finally, relative mitigation potentials by AFOLU subsector:

Climate mitigation potentials globally and in top 8 emitting nations (

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11 thoughts on “Farming Now Worse For Climate Than Deforestation, Land Use Change

  • Thanks, Sandy, for a well-researched post. The forestry news is surprisingly good overall. Brazil is still some way from net reafforestation: replanting in the Mata Atlantica (including 1 ipê tree by me so far) is outweighed by continued forest clearing in the Amazon.

    Cleverer use of fertilisers should be fairly easy, as it’s in the clear self-interest of farmers, while cheap sensors and microprocessors are making it easier to organise. A smartphone app is all the processing power you need.

    The hard bit is reduction of meat consumption. I doubt if this will be possible, but growth may be containable.

  • This is an easy fix. Everybody just stop eating.

    • The problem is not , ‘every body stop eating” but that about 50 % of food crops go to waste.
      If that would be reduced to 25 % only, and farming become more sustainable, that would be a HUGE help.

      • mmmm… garbage

  • Modern farming stared around WW2, before that we had very limited synthetic fertilizer.
    I wonder how organic farming compares in those respect vs ‘conventional’ farming?

    • Numerous studies have shown under a federal definition of “organic”, food prices will increase.
      Production will decline and even more people around the world will not eat. Production would not meet the demand.
      Travel to other parts of the world and go to the grocery stores compare their average annual incomes to the cost of food products.

  • Hmm maybe Synthetic food? Food is essential air and water like hydrocarbons with with more oxygen nitrogen and phosphate. We can synthesis hydrocarbons from air and water why not food. Never had much reason to before but we will probable need to figure it out before we can can move on out to space..Might be essential for producing the base nutrients then the space energy intensive hydro or air-ponics systems can be reserved for aesthetics and flavor..

  • Yes, Brazil needs an effective government, in the Amazon as elsewhere. But ineffective government is in the interests of the ranchers. José Sarney is an ex-President of Brazil and leader of the Senate; his daughter Roseana inherited the governorship of Maranhão state, and only lost it in 2014. Dilma Rousseff isn’t interested in challenging these people and imposing the rule of law.

  • The best thing one can do to curb climate-change is to be vegan. I strongly suggest to watch a documentary called Cowspiracy.

  • The world population has increased from 5.2 billion to 6.8 billion from 1990 to 2010. a 23% increase from 1990 to 2010 and they all eat.

    Over same time period, Global food production of :
    Wheat up 12%, potatoes up 25%, soybean up 140%, Milk up 20%, chicken production up 148%, pork up 53%. To name a few.

    So if emission from agriculture over that time period increased 1.2%, to achieve this level of increased production to feed the world is impressively efficient.
    I would say your title and article is misleading at best. Please try to scare someone else.

    Proof the old adage ‘figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.’

  • One thingin this post that is not made clear is that land use changes may not affect greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and yet still affect climate. How, by affecting the albedo (reflective) of the surface. Reflecting more light tends to cool the surface while absorbing light heats the surface.

    If you removed a forest is a way that didn’t change CO2 levels you would get warming because the soil doesn’t reflect light as well. Paint the soil white you get cooling. Cover it with Asphalt you get heating.

    During the last 60 years our cities have gotten larger, we have made more roads and use more and more land for farming. one study I recently read about estimated that 40% of the warming observed maybe caused by albedo changed caused by land use changes.

    In another document i read about Almeria Spain where farms have covered moch of the land with greanhouses made of metal poles and white plastic sheeting. The white plastic has caused the local temperature to drop 0.3 degrees over the last 30 years while the rest of Spain has warmed.

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