Climate change and agriculture

OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate

Agriculture not only contributes to climate change and is affected by it, it also forms part of the solution. Coherent and effective policies are needed.

At least 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions come directly from the farm sector. That is more than transport and not far behind the contribution from industry.

How does agriculture produce such high emissions? One way is through farming activity itself: ploughing fields releases carbon dioxide in the soil, and rice cultivation and livestock breeding both emit large quantities of methane. Farming uses fossil fuels and fertilizers. Agriculture also involves land-use changes, including deforestation and desertification of fragile grasslands. These changes alter the earth’s ability to absorb or reflect heat and light.

Despite its relatively high contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture is not yet subject to emissions caps under the Kyoto agreement to fight climate change. Nevertheless, governments are taking action, and the OECD is supporting their efforts through analysis, information sharing and policy advice.

Devising policies and undertaking commitments to mitigate climate change through agriculture clearly means knowing more about agriculture’s carbon footprint. As in most other sectors this carbon footprint is increasing, since farming is set to expand to produce more food for a growing world population. In fact, food production will need to double from current levels if projections of more than 9 billion people in 2050 prove correct. That means more land-use change, more cultivation, more livestock and more use of fossil fuels.

But there are other, different challenges to contend with too. As well as being a source of climate change, agriculture is affected by shifts in climate. Projections to 2050 suggest an increase in both global mean temperatures and weather variability, including precipitation. This will clearly affect the type and location of agricultural production worldwide–from the vines of Europe through pasture in Africa to rice in Asia, whole patterns of production and livelihoods could be transformed.

Many countries will be able to adapt and some may even benefit by being able to grow new crops. But poorer communities and those living in fragile lands, such as deltas and low-lying coasts, may be exposed to greater risks. This makes adaptation vitally important. It also confirms just how key global co-operation will be in meeting adaptation needs in the years ahead.

Farm solutions
While agriculture contributes to climate change, it is also one of the few sectors that can provide solutions. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity will have to decrease globally from 1990 levels by at least 50% by 2050 if future global warming is to be limited to a 2°C temperature increase, as currently recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This imperative was repeated by world leaders at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

How can farming help? One answer is carbon sequestration, as soil literally captures and absorbs carbon and so offsets emissions not only from farming, but from other sectors too.

As for mitigation, policies aimed at reducing emissions in agriculture may be more cost-competitive than in some industrial and transport options.

There are challenges though, including in measurement. Quantifying greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities is complex and costly, given the variety of farmers and systems used over a wide range of geographic and climatic conditions. Moreover, there remains a great deal of scientific uncertainty about how to control emissions from agriculture, since many factors are at play, such as local climate, soil type, slope and production practices. In other words, there is no simple relationship between the quantity of production and emissions.

Calculating indirect land-use changes arising from agricultural production is another challenge. The global surge in food prices in recent years reflected competition for land use related to world food and energy markets. In particular, the links between production of biofuels from feedstock–these are subsidised in many countries–consequent land-use changes, including deforestation, and effects on food prices need to be further explored.

Mitigate and adapt
With the right technologies and systems, improved cropland and grazing land management, restoration of degraded lands and land-use change, such as agro-forestry, can make a major contribution to limiting greenhouse gases. Emissions from livestock production can be reduced by improving nutrition and manure management.

Science offers promising solutions in areas such as genetics, so-called secondgeneration biofuels that compete less with land used for food crops, and carbon capture, though clearly more research is needed. Genetics, for instance, could help reduce methane from animals too. Cattle and sheep’s sizeable share of greenhouse gases–indeed, methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas–can be offset to some extent by capturing the carbon in pastureland. Better farming methods can help mitigate climate change while also improving water quality, biodiversity and soil quality.

Though some regions of the world may benefit from improved climatic conditions, if no action is taken, the overall effect for global agricultural production is expected to be negative. Adaptation will be important, given that we are already “locked-in” for a certain amount of climate change, and since mitigation efforts take time to have an effect. This could mean altering farmmanagement practices to adopting new varieties, crops and animal breeds more appropriate to future climate conditions. It may mean policies to discourage certain kinds of heavily emitting agriculture to reduce risks and slow down land-use changes. In any case, such policies will also relieve other environmental stresses, including in water supply, and make agriculture more sustainable (see article on water).

The stakes are high, and there are serious issues to address. Responding to climate change and other environmental concerns, while at the same time producing enough food to meet demand, will not be easy. The OECD is looking hard at the questions, such as the synergies and trade-offs as producers reduce their carbon footprint while remaining competitive. How can carbon markets make a difference and how can they be made more effective? And what efficiencies can be achieved in the processing, transport and distribution of food products throughout the supply chain?

Getting policies right in these areas will be key, as will working with markets to encourage trade and investment, and to correct distortions caused, for instance, by certain subsidies that lead to overproduction and resource depletion. In short, future policies must aim for better environmental outcomes, including lower emissions. The OECD is analysing the design and implementation of cost-effective adaptation and mitigation policies in a range of key areas. Carbon markets, crop and disaster insurance, adoption of better crop varieties and breeds, technology, emissions monitoring, incentives for more efficient water use and compensation for vulnerable groups: such measures, if taken together and adapted to specific country situations, would create coherent policy packages to limit agriculture’s contribution to climate change, improve the environment and boost the effectiveness and value-added of the farming sector.


OECD (forthcoming 2010), Climate Change and Agriculture: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation, Paris.

OECD (2008), Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990, Paris.

©OECD Observer n°278, March 2010

Bookmark this

Economic data

GDP : +0.5%, Q4 2014
Employment rate: 65.9%, Q4 2014
Annual inflation : 0.57% Feb 2015
Trade : -3.0% exp, -3.7 imp, Q4 2014
Unemployment : 7.022% Feb 2015
More moderate expansion ahead? Composite leading indicators
Updated: 23 Apr 2015


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Today, after three years of drought, California is in the midst of a full-blown political and environmental crisis, with restrictions imposed across the state, reports the Financial Times.
  • Why is the gap between rich and poor growing despite rises in GDP? Do benefits help? Does aid work? (The Guardian)
  • Lack of water holding back Asian growth In Asia, the world’s most dynamic region with the fastest economic growth, 75% of countries face serious water shortages.
  • ADB water
  • Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis expressed its scepticism towards the Eurozone’s institutions and gave ideas for ways forward. "Greece must become reformable again", Yanis Varoufakis said.
  • Business brief: Israel's water
  • #OECD360: Your country in figures.
  • How to ensure transparency in public procurement? Read Cobus de Swardt's article on OECD Insights.
  • Asia to maintain a strong 6.3% growth rate in 2015 and 2016, according to the Asian Development Bank
  • After three decades of extraordinary economic development, China is shifting to a slower and more sustainable growth path, according to the OECD's latest Economic Survey of China.
  • In pursuit of the American Dream
  • Iceland's strong recovery stems from the good use of its natural resources, the energy sector and tourism according to Peter Dohlman, IMF Mission Chief for Iceland.
  • cyclone
  • Government representatives and experts from around the world are gathering in Japan this week to develop a post-2015 framework for global disaster risk reduction. The World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) will share expertise at the conference.
  • Switzerland’s recent moves towards greater tax transparency were welcomed by the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, based at the OECD, as a boost to international efforts to end tax evasion. Work will continue with Switzerland, notably on implementation, in 2015.
  • Help bridge the gap between business integrity policies & practices:participate in this new OECD survey by clicking on the image.
  • What can we do to promote better literacy skills for all? Read Andreas Schleicher's latest blog on oecdeducationtoday.
  • pisa
  • Secretary General Angel Gurría describes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as a useful tool to enhance educational systems but states that improving a country's ranking should not be a goal per se. Article in Spanish by El País.
  • [VIDEO] Although many countries have made great progress in narrowing gender gaps in education, new challenges are looming.
  • 5 things you might not know about the state of Amazonas. The World Bank identifies the main colossal challenges Brazil's biggest state is facing.
  • Gender mainstreaming: young French lady working in an engine assembly plant. Women and men in the same boat when it comes to job insecurity. © Raphaël Helle / Signatures / La France VUE D'ICI
  • The Asian Development Bank together with the International Labour Organization challenge the concept of women's work in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.
  • The 5th Anti-corruption conference for G20 governments and business in Istanbul on 6 March will address how all businesses can play their part in contributing to growth and investment, and can operate with clean hands in a safe environment.
  • Success story. Discover the story of this young Ethiopian woman who launched a successful business in the footwear industry and became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship.
  • Transports in Asia. The Asian Development Bank advocates sustainable transport in a continent where vehicle ownership is perceived as a sign of social success.
  • Vote for your favourite photograph! This World Bank #EachDayISee photo contest aims to display visual stories from all over the world through which people express what they would like to see changed and improved.
  • Why is investment so low in the euro area? This short IMF blog post gives you an insight into the causes of the euro-zone's drastic decline in investment.
  • Have your say! The UN wants to know what matters most to you: pick six global issues in the list and send it to the United Nations.
  • Tim Harcourt Video
  • G20 and Australia: Bestselling economist Tim Harcourt speaks to the BBC about how Australia has gone from "Down Under to Down Wonder".
  • Clear air and healthy lungs: how to better tackle air pollution. From New Delhi to Accra, millions of people breathe polluted air. A new report examines the World Bank’s experience working to improve air quality.

Most Popular Articles


What issue are you most concerned about in 2015?

Euro crisis
Global warming
International conflict

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2015