Agriculture is highly exposed to climate change, as farming activities directly depend on climatic conditions. Agriculture also contributes to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Two powerful greenhouse gases are by-products of agricultural activity:
- Methane (CH4) – from livestock digestion processes and stored animal manure;
- Nitrous oxide (N2O) – from organic and mineral nitrogen fertilisers.
However, agriculture can also contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and by sequestering carbon while maintaining food production.
How climate change impacts agriculture
The impact of climate change is being felt across the EU, and European farming in particular, through:
- changing rainfall patterns;
- rising temperatures;
- variability in seasonality;
- extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts, storms, and floods.
Human systems and ecosystems in Europe are vulnerable to major climate change impacts such as river floods, droughts or coastal flooding. Even if some climatic changes may be positive for some northern European regions, most will be negative, affecting regions already suffering from environmental or other changes. In various regions, a combination of different types of these impacts can exacerbate vulnerabilities. Farming will be most affected in the southern and south-eastern regions of the EU.
Climate change mitigation
As regards the future of agriculture under the changing climate, a range of adjustment measures can be undertaken relating to farming practices, for example planting, harvesting and watering/fertilising existing crops, using different varieties, diversifying crops, implementing management practices.
Mitigation has the potential to reduce climate change impacts, and adaptation can reduce the damage of those impacts. Together, both approaches can contribute to the development of societies that are more resilient to the threat of climate change.
Climate change adaptation
Adaptive measures (both at farm and at sectorial level) in agriculture range from technological solutions to adjustments in farm management or structures, and to political changes, such as adaptation plans.
Concerning farm-level adaptation, possible short to medium term adaptive solutions may include:
- adjusting the timing of farm operations, such as planting or sowing dates and treatments;
- technical solutions, such as protecting orchards from frost damage or improving ventilation and cooling systems in animal shelters;
- choosing crops and varieties better adapted to the expected length of the growing season and water availability, and more resistant to new conditions of temperature and humidity;
- adapting crops with the help of existing genetic diversity and new possibilities offered by biotechnology;
- improving the effectiveness of pest and disease control through for instance better monitoring, diversified crop rotations, or integrated pest management methods;
- using water more efficiently by reducing water losses, improving irrigation practices, and recycling or storing water;
- improving soil management by increasing water retention to conserve soil moisture, and landscape management, such as maintaining landscape features providing shelter to livestock;
- introducing more heat-tolerant livestock breeds and adapting diet patterns of animals under heat stress conditions.
Sectorial-level adaptation may include:
- identification of vulnerable areas and sectors and assessment of needs and opportunities for changing crops and varieties in response to climate trends;
- support to agricultural research and to experimental production aiming at crop selection and development of varieties best suited to new conditions;
- building adaptive capacity by awareness raising and provision of salient information and advice on farm management.
CAP and climate change
The common agricultural policy (CAP) offers a number of instruments to find adequate answers to the challenges of climate change, a more sustainable EU agriculture. Given the pressure on natural resources, agriculture has to improve its environmental performance through more sustainable production methods. Farmers also have to adapt to challenges stemming from climate change, and have to pursue mitigation and adaptation actions (e.g. by developing greater resilience to disasters, such as flooding, drought and fire). Sustainable management of natural resources and climate action represent one of the three main objectives of the CAP.
Improved sustainability will be achieved by combined complementary effects of various instruments.
Firstly, there is a simplified and more targeted cross-compliance mechanism, representing the basic layer of environmental requirements and obligations to be met in order to receive full CAP funding.
Secondly, from 2015 onwards, the CAP introduced a new policy instrument, the Green Direct Payment. This 'green payment' is granted for implementing three compulsory practices, namely crop diversification, ecological focus areas and permanent grassland, whose environmental benefits on biodiversity, water and soil quality, carbon sequestration and landscapes have been proven. It represents 30 % of the direct payment budget. As the green direct payment is compulsory it has the advantage of introducing practices that are beneficial for the environment and climate change on large part of the utilised agricultural area.
Thirdly, building on these compulsory elements, rural development continues to play a pivotal role in achieving the environmental objectives of the CAP and combating climate change. The rural development policy objectives are translated into priorities at EU level. Two of these objectives directly concern environment and climate change:
- Restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems dependent on agriculture and forestry;
- Promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift towards a low carbon and climate resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors.
On top of this, innovation as well as climate change and environment are crosscutting objectives within the EU's rural development policy, meaning that these three objectives should be integrated/reflected in Member States' strategies and instrument choice.
The focus of the rural development policy on sustainability is clearly visible by the fact that at least 30 % of the budget of each rural development programme must be reserved for voluntary, targeted measures that are beneficial for the environment and climate change.
The whole set of complementary policy instruments is accompanied by related training measures and other support from the Farm Advisory System, insights gained from the Innovation Partnership and applied research, which would help farmers to implement appropriate solutions for their specific situations.
The future of the CAP
Addressing climate change is one of the nine key objectives upon which the future CAP will be based.
The European Commission has prepared an introductory brief exploring the risk that climate change poses to agriculture and outlining how new farm and soil management techniques can play a vital role in reducing agricultural emissions.