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Global warming: The challenge of carbon capture

agri-food, agriculture, Global Warming

5 Nov 2021

A major challenge for humanity? 

 The COP21 international climate conference held in 2015 saw, 196 States sign the Paris Agreement, pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and maintain global warming below 2°C by 2050. That goal is ambitious but necessary to ensure our ability to feed a growing population while limiting our impact on the climate. 

To achieve these goals, it is important to understand the source of the problem. Human activities such as deforestation are releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere; it is estimated that 4.3 billion tons of COare emitted into the atmosphere each year, and this increase is responsible for the global warming we are facing today. The goal is therefore not only to reduce these emissions but also to recapture some of this CO2 in the soil and the oceans. 

 The 4 for 1000 initiative, launched at COP21 in 2015, claims that an increase of 0.4% per year in the carbon absorbed in soils would slow the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus significantly contributing to reducing the effects of climate change. 

 Agriculture is one of the largest CO2 emitters (24% of total emissions according to the IPCC) and one of the sectors most affected by climate change. It has a major role to play in achieving the objectives set by the COP21. Soil erosion and biodiversity loss, among others, have a significant impact on agricultural yields worldwide, and a growing number of farmers are concerned about their economic viability being threatened.  

 What are the solutions? 

 Regenerative agriculture provides an answer to this issue. The Rodale Institute defines regenerative agriculture as a system and holistic approach to agriculture that encourages continuous innovation within farms to enhance the environmental, social, and economic impacts of production systems.  Through a set of sustainable practices, regenerative agriculture encourages, among other things, the sequestration of carbon in soils, making them healthier and therefore fertile. 

 Today, we consider that if we converted all the world’s cropland and pasture to this form of agriculture, we could sequester more than 100% of the annual CO2 emissions produced by human activities. 

 This concept, born in the 1980s, is constantly gaining interest in an agricultural world that must now face the consequences of climate change.   

 How to capture the excess carbon in the soil?  

 Tillage reduction, permanent soil cover, crop rotation, optimization of our grazing systems, and restoration of biodiversity and soil health all contribute to the capture and sequestration of CO2 in soils.  By converting our agricultural models to these practices, we are sustaining agricultural production for future generations. 

What are the main challenges facing regenerative agriculture blocking a mass transition? 

 Why aren’t we seeing a mass transition?    

First, a transition can only be effective if it takes place over the entire production system. Everything cannot be done at the farm level, and every link in the value chain, right up to the consumer, must be involved in the change to support the transition effort. A paradigm shift is needed to engage all actors in the agricultural sector in this transition.  

Moreover, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented in the same way worldwide. Depending on climates, the farming systems, the size of the farms, and the means available, different practices will be privileged or adapted. This lack of uniformity in solutions makes understanding, and therefore implementing, new practices more complicated.   

Finally, to effectively tackle climate change, radical change and scaling up are essential. Considering the effort of transformation and the necessary investment, we understand that intensifying the transition can only be done through a widespread awareness and collaboration of the different actors on a global scale.  

How to implement these practices for an effective transition?

To address these challenges, several paths that can facilitate the transition, such as:  

  • Our way of producing – Sustainable agricultural practices exist and can be implemented. Precise specifications adaptable to different farming systems, financial modelling to estimate financial viability, and a better understanding of impacts are important levers to facilitate the adoption of new practices.   
  • The way we consume – Our diets can have an impact on agricultural production. For example, the lack of diversity in the species of legumes and cereals consumed leads to monocultural production, depleting the soil. Thus, it is important to diversify our diets and reduce our waste to preserve our soils and resources.   
  • How we collaborate Alignment of all actors in the value chain is crucial. Food, cosmetics, and textile companies must rethink their sourcing and support farmers in their transition. It is by working together that the entire sector can move forward.  

 On the continuity of COP21, will COP26 put agriculture at the center of its concerns, for the challenges it faces but also for its strong capacity to respond to climate issues?