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Climate changes, emission reduction, agriculture and livestock

The agriculture and livestock sector is still timid towards discussions on results of the Paris Climate Agreement, although the sector has already been implementing measures to mitigate gas emissions, including initiative of growers themselves, by adopting no-till systems, for instance. Nevertheless, a significant share of emissions to be reduced are caused by agriculture and livestock and commitments that Brazil agreed impose the adoption of measures to mitigate emissions.


Over the last decade, data from Sirene (National Emissions Registry System)/MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) point to a significant decrease of total emissions, mainly due to the reduction of changes in soils and forests use. Emissions have decreased from 1,261,220 CO2 Gg equivalent GWP (Global Warming Potential), in 2001, to 349,176 in 2010. The composition of Brazilian emissions shows that agriculture and livestock was, on average, the second most important source of contribution for greenhouse gas emissions (GEE) this decade, reaching, 407,072 Gg of CO2 equivalent GWP in 2010, according to official data.


In the component of gas emissions caused by agriculture and livestock, the beef cattle activities play a significant role. In 2010, 57.6% of emissions of the sector came from animal enteric fermentation, followed by agricultural soil emissions (34.5%), animal waste handling (4.3%), rice crops (due to flood irrigation) (2.4%) and the burning of agricultural waste (1.3%).


However, part of the agriculture and livestock sector has been adopting management techniques for several years that promote a better use of natural resources in general and, more specifically, gas emissions reductions. This is observed with the expansion of minimum cultivation and no-till systems, which not only reduce the number of operations in soil preparation, but also decrease the use of fertilizers and pesticides.


Another interesting example is the improvements on waste management, mainly in the swine activity. The Conama ordinance No. 237/1997 has favored the reduction of methane emissions. Other management strategies that have been increasing in Brazil also contribute to increase production with less emission, such as the Farming-Forestry-Livestock Integration System and the inoculation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soybean crops, reducing the need of nitrogen fertilization.


In this context of changes and technological advances, since 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply and the Ministry of Agrarian and Social Development have coordinated and carried out, in a partnership with other institutions of the federal government, the Sectorial Plan for Mitigation and Adjustment to Climate Changes for the Consolidation of a Low Carbon Emission Economy in Agriculture, otherwise known as the ABC Plan, based on Law No. 12,187/2009 and settled on Decree No. 7,390/2010. The ABC Plan presents actions to encourage producers to absorb sustainable production technologies, which have potential to contribute for Brazil to reduce GHG emissions in the agriculture and livestock sector.


When discussing mitigation options for GHG emissions, as the Paris Agreement proposes, the agriculture and livestock sector, although timid in the internalization of discussions about these goals, has already been taken steps towards a more sustainable model encouraged by the ABC Plan and its programs. Some actions, such as pasture recovery, clearly benefit producers, because they ensure higher productivity in livestock, reducing the slaughter age, resulting not only in environmental advantages but also in better economic sustainability for the livestock industry.


Some of the targets established for 2020 by the ABC Plan are the recovery of 15 million hectares of degraded pastures, the increase of 4 million hectares with Farming-Forestry-Livestock Integration, 8 million hectares expansion in no-till systems, 5 million hectares with biological nitrogen fixation, 3 million hectares increase of planted forests and 4.4 million cubic meters of treated waste.


The implementation of the ABC Plan is still challenged by operational bottlenecks and it is necessary to evaluate all steps of the way from the credit granting from the federal government, encompassing the technical project presentation and the operationalization within the banking system, to the identification whether the producers in greater need are being assisted by the Plan. Since its launch in 2009 until 2016, there have been relevant advances, not only in terms of the amounts allocated by the programs, which rose from 1.6 billion BRL in the 2011/12 season, according to Observatório ABC, to 3.7 billion BRL in the 2014/15 crop, but also in a wider range of sectors benefitted. In the midst of discussions regarding emission mitigation options, the ABC Plan is indeed a relevant contribution from the agriculture and livestock sector.


Although the environmental questions always raise concerns to producers about possible increases of production costs without compensation in the revenue, the beef cattle segment may be favored by reaching the targets to improve pasture and decreasing slaughter age. Pastures improvement may increase the cattle stocking rates, allowing to slaughter animals sooner. In these conditions, the production of animal protein may increase in the mid-term through the process that allows to reduce emissions per ton of meat produced.


There are many other components to be discussed; however, there seems to exist several measures that can be encouraged in the Brazilian agriculture and livestock. These measures would not imply in high costs in the short and mid-terms when compared to other classical intervention measures of environmental policies, such as those discussed for other sectors (transportation, energy, industry). The discussion needs to take into account projections of mid and long-terms to increase in Brazilian productions and exportations of farming and livestock products or byproducts.


Moreover, it is certain that structural subjects take the backseat due to crisis Brazil is undergoing, for this and other sectors of the economy. There are not many international experiences to reduce GHG emissions in the agriculture and livestock sector, as observed for the industrial and energy sectors – except for the forest sector. It is also certain that the Brazilian energy matrix with high biomass use also reflects an additional contribution of the sector. However, it is not possible to stay away from the discussion that is beginning, which is likely to come to the spotlight after the crisis is overcome. Agriculture and livestock, more than a view as environmental liability, need to be seem as a rich source of mitigation possibilities in win-win processes for the sector and the environment alike. 


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