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COP27: How to reduce emissions and still feed the world

Stanford and Princeton co-hosted an official side event at COP27 to present the 2022 Global Carbon Budget, outline approaches to impact at scale at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, and discuss the challenges and solutions for decarbonizing agriculture.

Cattle graze in a green field near woodlands
It039s good to sequester carbon in farmland because it has many benefits, including building resilience to climate change. The trick is that we cant do that at the expense of yields, or we jeopardize what little is left of nature, said WRI

Representatives of nations around the world are returning from the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (informally called COP27) where they have agreed to compensate countries at highest risk from climate disasters fueled by emissions from rich countries. In addition to the focus on “loss and damages,” this year's summit emphasized food systems and emissions amidst a global food crisis and ongoing deforestation related to agriculture. In response, Stanford joined with Princeton and Cornell universities to co-host an official side event on Nov. 11 highlighting the role cutting-edge research and solutions can play in decarbonizing the food and agricultural systems.

The event was one of several co-organized by members from the delegation of Stanford faculty, scholars, and students who attended COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt. Twelve faculty members, research staff and students participated as unofficial observers and shared their expertise in a wide range of topics from wildfire and public health to oceans and Blue Food.

“There's really no better place than the COP to engage with environmental ministers, experts and advocates – many with vastly different concerns – about the one area where their interests converge: the need to reduce emissions enough to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and moderator for the side event.

Pierre Friedlingstein, lead author of the 2022 Global Carbon Budget report, and Julia Pongratz, chair of physical geography and land-use systems at LMU Munich, presented findings for the 2022 global carbon budget. Arun Majumdar, inaugural dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, introduced the three-pronged approach that enables the new school to deliver impact at scale by embracing traditional departments, interdisciplinary institutes and programs, and a novel Sustainability Accelerator. A panel of experts from Cornell, Princeton, and the World Resources Institute discussed the challenges and solutions in climate and agriculture.

Balancing the global carbon budget

The Global Carbon Project (GCP) brings together researchers from the international science community to balance the figurative checkbook of the carbon cycle. Stanford Earth System Science Professor Rob Jackson chairs the GCP Scientific Steering Committee, and contributed to the report quantifying greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and land use  alongside estimates for CO2 absorption by carbon “sinks” including the atmosphere, ocean, and natural systems. The findings are a key tool for policy debate at the U.N. climate summits and other global forums used to inform action that will slow (and ultimately halt) emissions into the atmosphere and limit global warming.

The most recent report projects that the combined emissions from fossil fuels and land use in 2022 is about 40.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. To put the challenge of climate mitigation in perspective, Friedlingstein noted that in order to limit warming and reach global net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, we would need to reduce emissions by 1.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide every year – comparable to the decline seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keeping up with population growth

Nations worldwide are reckoning with a paradoxical challenge: how to reduce emissions to limit catastrophic warming and simultaneously increase yields to feed a growing global population. In order to meet demand in 2050, food yields will need to increase by a staggering 45 percent according to Timothy Searchinger, a senior research scholar at Princeton University's Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment. 

A sustainable approach must balance the tradeoffs between keeping carbon stored naturally in agricultural land versus intensifying production to prevent additional clearing and deforestation. Recent Stanford-led research showed that early adopters of cover cropping in the U.S. Corn Belt saw decreased yields for soybean and maize, despite the potential benefits for soil health.

“It's good to sequester carbon in farmland because it has many benefits, including building resilience to climate change. The trick is that we can’t do that at the expense of yields, or we jeopardize what little is left to nature,” said Janet Ranganathan, Managing Director and Executive Vice President for Strategy, Learning and Results at the World Resources Institute.

Carbon costs in the context of loss and damages

Europe is one example of a region that already imports most of its food supply. New policies are looking to convert even more of their arable land for biofuel production, restoration, and conservation for biodiversity.

But as a result, the burden of food production – and the associated political, economic, and environmental penalties for deforestation – will fall to those countries that already are strained by the impacts of climate change.

This domino effect is especially relevant in the context of the overarching theme of loss and damages at COP27. One notable outcome of the negotiations is an agreement to create a fund that will bolster developing nations responding to the impacts of climate disasters.

Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, and Deborah Aller, an Extension Associate in the Cornell Soil Health program, highlighted the importance of elevating agriculture in climate policy, creating context-specific solutions, and building capacity.  “Policy responses in agriculture are more likely to succeed if they consider the role of farmers, first and foremost as key agents of change,” said Chatrchyan.

In practice, creating a more sustainable agricultural system will involve a full suite of industrial, regenerative, and climate mitigation approaches, from reducing meat consumption and limiting food waste to effectively using nitrogen inputs and improving the carbon accounting for land use.

Get additional insights from the full event recording:

Majumdar is the Jay Precourt Professor at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability; and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. Jackson is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Aerial view of a salmon farm in Norway.

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Media Contacts

Chris Field
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
cfield@stanford.edu, (650) 736-4352

Christine Black
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
christine.harrison@stanford.edu, (650) 725-8240

Mara Vandlik
mvandlik@stanford.edu

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