RSPB Lake Vyrnwy Nature Reserve, Llanwddyn, Oswestry, Shropshire, Wales

Reducing farming emissions

We're working to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide emitted by the farming industry.

Farming and emissions

Globally, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for between 17-32 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.* 

Farming is among the primary emitters of the potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. It can also generate emissions or uptake of carbon dioxide as a result of management and land-use change (for example, through ploughing of carbon-rich habitats), but current accounting systems mean these impacts are often overlooked or not attributed to agriculture. 

The RSPB is concerned there is a tendency for a 'siloed' approach to policy on reducing emissions which does not address the most pressing issues, such as restoring and protecting existing carbon-rich soils (including peatlands and unimproved grasslands).

* Bellarby, J., Foereid, B., Hastings, A. and Smith, P. (2008) Cool Farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential, Greenpeace.

RSPB Forsinard Flows; view from visitor trail, including snow-capped Ben Griam, Highland, Scotland.

Prioritising mitigation

In prioritising mitigation actions to reduce emissions from agriculture, it is essential that an integrated approach is taken.

This improves the sustainability of the industry and will not cause further degradation of the natural environment, for example, by harming wildlife or increasing the risk of pollution.

However, current industry-led approaches to mitigation (such as the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan in England) often involve focusing on improving efficiency and largely ignore the importance of sustainable land use and management as an integral part of climate-friendly farming. 

Soils are a hugely important reservoir of carbon, standing at three times the size of the atmospheric carbon pool** and with the ability to act as a sink drawing down further carbon from the atmosphere. 

The vast majority of the mitigation potential deliverable by agriculture arises through soil carbon management.*** Maintaining and restoring carbon stocks in soils is essential to combat climate change but can also provide multiple other benefits. 

** Lal, R. (2004). Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304:1623–7 

*** Smith et al (2008) Greenhouse gas mitigation in agriculture. Phil Trans of the RSBS 363: 789-813

Farmland Adviser Andy Cotton with Edward Cross, Farmer, Norfolk, England

Production efficiency

It is often assumed that any increase in production efficiency will make farming more carbon-friendly by reducing emissions for each unit of production.

However, we have concerns about the current focus on this approach as a carbon mitigation strategy. 

Firstly, it is important to consider the overall sustainability of the farming system – the challenges we face cannot be addressed by making a fundamentally unsustainable system more efficient. 

The negative impacts of systems which rely on high level of inputs (such as intensive livestock systems) or have large indirect impacts (such as driving land-use change) are often not captured in measures of production efficiency, but the consequences - for both carbon and wildlife - can be severe. 

Secondly, the efficiency of the farming system considers only the production output and does not capture the multifunctional nature of agriculture. Services such as carbon storage and biodiversity conservation are not captured in 'production efficiency' statistics. Attempts to make low intensity systems more 'efficient' could result in the loss of their carbon storage, cultural and wildlife value through agricultural intensification.

Finally, a focus solely on reducing emissions per unit of production is often accompanied by a reluctance to consider total emissions which is the critical factor in relation to climate change. More attention needs to be paid to encouraging more climate friendly consumption patterns, for example, through reducing levels of meat consumption in developed countries, as an overall mitigation strategy.

Welsh black cattle at Lake Vyrnwy

Livestock farming

Pursuing production efficiency without properly considering the issues above could cause further environmental damage and could lead to an overall increase in carbon emissions.

This is a particular risk in relation to livestock farming where there is a danger that indirect impacts of intensive systems and wider benefits of extensive livestock systems are ignored. 

For example, recent research analysing livestock related GHG emissions in Europe found that few studies have properly considered less direct impacts relating to land use, despite the importance of these emissions (so-called LULUC - land use and land use change).**** 

The researchers concluded that intensive grain-based livestock systems can be worse in terms of GHG emissions, if land use and land use change are taken into account, and recommended that less-intensive grazing systems should be favoured. 

This analysis also found that reducing food waste and consumption of livestock products, linked with reduced production, are the most effective mitigation strategies. Furthermore, this would bring wider environmental and human health benefits.

**** Bellarby et al (2013) Livestock greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential in Europe Global Change Biology (2013) 19, 3–18,

RSPB Lake Vyrnwy Nature Reserve, Llanwddyn, Oswestry, Shropshire, Wales. RSPB organic farm at Lake Vyrnwy with Farm Manager Gwynfor Evans. Welsh mountain sheep and Welsh black cattle.