Friday, February 11, 2011

Efficient, Intensive Farms Good for Climate?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

My husband often scoffs when he hears people talk about certain energy-saving home improvements. For example: putting an expensive solar array on their homes. It’s not that he isn’t environmentally minded; ask him and he’ll say something like most of their energy bill is from climate control. If they have big energy bills now, trying to heat with solar will be like trying to heat a bus kiosk with a curling iron. He’ll then go on to bemoan the fact that caulk isn’t sexy enough for some people.

His spirit was vindicated when I found a report by McKinsey and Company that draws a Global Greenhouse Gasses Abatement Cost Curve for various ways the world could reduce its emissions. The graphic shows there are many things society is aware of that will reduce the amount of emissions (like caulking) without impacting quality of life (like turning down the heat in winter, which he also does). It shows that there are many emissions-reducing things out there that more than pay for themselves --- and there are things that are downright expensive. We’re not talking “capital intensive” here; many things with high upfront costs will pay for themselves quite soon, and keep on paying for themselves.

The report makes mention that it is not interested in the debate about climate change or its impacts. It remains officially agnostic about that.

To give you a sense of the sorts of things that are on the extremes of the Cost Curve, the things that remove the most tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere per buck spent are: more efficient lighting, electronics, retrofitting insulation (caulk!) and climate control systems ---- while the things that remove very little per dollar spent are: various power plant carbon capture technological retrofits which don’t come anywhere near paying for themselves, and alternative energy (like solar!). The McKinsey report created the cost curve because the writers feel that by focusing on first implementing the measures that are productive in themselves (by saving money) we can then focus on things that actually cost more than they save, like solar arrays.

So, how does this all apply to agriculture? Well, McKinsey has identified agriculture as one of three major areas where major reductions in emissions can total 38 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year in 2030 relative to annual “business as usual” emissions of 70 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year.

Some of these agricultural changes will be expensive to society; some will actually save society money, or, in other words, make society wealthier.

What are the changes we should be making right now to both reduce our emissions and save money? According to the McKinsey report the biggest bang for our buck would be Better Cropland Nutrient Management followed by better Tillage and Residue Management. Some large-scale farmers are already far ahead of others with these best practices, and they are often rewarded with more profit. Unfortunately, because we currently don't have a way to rate the sustainability of commodities, there's no way to know if the corn, wheat or soy in your processed food is grown in this very responsible way. Unless you know farming pretty well, you may not realize that large-scale farmers are doing many of these types of emission saving practices that also provide water quality and quantity savings, expand wildlife habitat and increase soil fertility over time.

Some of the biggest ag emissions reducing costs to society are reducing the amount of land converted to intensive agriculture* and the related various ways that land can be taken out of agricultural use and turned back into bog, grassland and forest. Needless to say, agriculture will need to squeeze as much food out of an acre as possible to take land out of production, since the trend, especially in places like South America, has been putting new land into production. Here again, the average consumer is often unaware of the link between overall global environmental preservation and intensive, efficient U.S. production on existing farmland.

It’s a really neat report. Just about everything you need to know about its 189 pages is summed up in the cost-curve chart. The recommendations on agriculture start on page 123.You can easily down load the full report by clicking here.

*It should be noted that land that has already been converted to intensive agriculture does not seem to have any continuing adverse effects after the first years, i.e., turning prairie into farmland has some negative effects initially, but keeping the land non-prairie does not.

Bottom line: spread the word that some key practices used by efficient and successful U.S. farmers can be a big part of reducing GHG emissions in some of the most cost effective ways possible. The more that large, efficient farms stay highly productive here, the less new land will be converted into new farmland abroad -- something that creates high GHG emissions. And that's just a byproduct of producing some of the healthiest, most nutritious food on the planet!!

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