Urgent need for ag-food sector in middle-income countries to ramp up emissions reduction efforts: World Bank report

By Maria Fortunato

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Darika Dasopa
Image: Getty/Darika Dasopa

Related tags greenhouse gas emissions agri-food co2 methane

The global ag-food system has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with middle-income countries (MICs) in particular needing to reverse their collective role as the world’s largest emitters of GHGs related to ag-food.

This was a key finding in a new report by the World Bank, titled Recipe for a Liveable Planet: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in the Agrifood System​. The current global ag-food system is a major contributor to climate change, exacerbating environmental degradation and societal inequities. Despite its vital role in providing jobs, food security and economic development, the system's rising GHG emissions threaten the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Recent data has revealed that ag-food emits significantly more GHGs than previously estimated, reaching 16 gigatonnes of CO2 ​equivalent per year and accounting for 30.8% of global emissions. Key sources of these emissions include livestock (25.9%), land use change (18.4%), food system waste (10.7%), soil-related emissions (8.1%), household consumption patterns (7.3%), fertiliser production and use (6.9%), on-farm energy and electricity use (5.4%) and rice production (4.3%).

These emissions surpass those from the world’s heat and electricity sectors combined, and are particularly damaging as they include potent GHGs such as methane (CH4​) and nitrous oxide (N2​O), which have much greater global warming potentials than CO2​.

Without significant changes, the projected increase in global food demand and population growth will likely lead to an 80% rise in ag-food emissions by 2050. However the report suggests that the ag-food sector could cut almost a third of global emissions through cost-effective and accessible measures while still supporting a growing population. 

Middle-income, high emissions

Interestingly, MICs are the largest emitters of ag-food GHGs, contributing 67.8% of global emissions compared to 21.2% from high-income countries (HICs) and 11% from low-income countries (LICs).

This trend is driven by rapid industrialisation and rising consumer incomes in MICs, which are following an emissions-heavy development path similar to that of HICs and exacerbated by larger and growing populations. It is also expected to continue, leading to diverse emissions profiles when compared to high- and low-income countries.

While land use change emissions in MICs have decreased from 38.4% to 20.2% since 1990-1992, emissions from pre- and post-production activities have surged from 17.1% to 34.5%. This indicates a move towards more industrialised agricultural practices and increased food processing and transportation.

HICs, although historically the highest emitters, have seen their share of ag-food emissions decline due to slower population growth, economic shifts towards manufacturing and services, and investments in food sector productivity and renewable energy. Despite this, HICs continue to have the highest per capita emissions, largely due to their resource-intensive consumption patterns and reliance on meat and dairy.

LICs, while currently the smallest contributors, have experienced the fastest growth in ag-food emissions since the early 1990s, primarily driven by land use changes and increasing agricultural production. This rapid growth highlights the pressing need for sustainable development strategies in these countries to prevent further environmental degradation.

Among the aforementioned MICs, China, Brazil and India lead the list. The US is the top emitter among HICs, while the Democratic Republic of Congo is the only LIC in the top 10, primarily due to deforestation for agricultural expansion.

Proposed mitigation in different nations

Efforts to mitigate ag-food emissions must focus on sustainable agricultural practices, reducing deforestation, and improving efficiency in food production and distribution. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, adopting less resource-intensive diets, and minimizing food waste are also crucial steps. Additionally, international cooperation and support for developing countries to implement sustainable practices are essential to address this global challenge.

According to the report, several cost-effective mitigation actions can be taken immediately, such as enhancing agricultural practices to reduce emissions from livestock, fertilizer use and rice production. It also suggests offsetting land use change emissions to prevent deforestation and promote reforestation, as well as reducing food waste and improving waste disposal practices.

At the same time, the report outlines various strategies for HICs, MICs and LICs to address ag-food emissions. High-income countries can provide support to lower-income countries not just through financial aid but also by promoting low-emission farming practices and technologies. These include technical assistance for forest conservation that generates high-integrity carbon credits, advanced technologies like feed additives that reduce livestock emissions, and comprehensive support through international institutions and climate diplomacy.

Middle-income countries could significantly reduce emissions by adopting greener agricultural practices. Strategies include lowering emissions from livestock and rice production, investing in soil health, and minimising food loss and waste. Efficient land use is also crucial, as a substantial portion of emission reduction opportunities lies in sustainable land management.

Low-income countries, on the other hand, have the chance to avoid the environmental mistakes of wealthier nations. Focusing on climate-smart agricultural practices and forest preservation can drive sustainable economic development. And given that over half their ag-food emissions stem from deforestation for food production, restoring forests is a critical step.

Financing gaps and the costs of inaction

Transforming the ag-food system to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 requires substantial financial investment, with the report estimating a need for US$260 billion annually to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050. This reduction represents half the current ag-food emissions and 15% of the projected economy-wide emissions for that year.

However, there is a significant gap between current funding and the necessary investment. Currently, the ag-food system receives only US$28.5 billion in climate finance (much of which go to environmentally detrimental subsidies), with $14.4 billion dedicated to mitigation.

To achieve the necessary reduction, annual investments must increase 14-fold and private investment must be scaled up, particularly targeting low-emission Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) practices. Blended finance using public resources can minimise investment risks, while concessional finance providers can offer loans, grants and equity investments to support the sector's transformation.

The report also warns that the costs of inaction include natural disasters and exacerbated food insecurity. This necessitates the redirection of these subsidies to help finance the necessary investments, whose benefits are projected to exceed US$4 trillion and encompass improvements in human health, food and nutrition security, job quality, farmer profits, and carbon sequestration in forests and soils.

Sustainability through systemic change

In addition to  mitigation strategies for countries based on income level, the report also states that Institutions play a critical role in mobilising investments, incentives and innovation. For instance, international cooperation and frameworks — such as those established by the UNFCCC — facilitate the transfer of finance and technologies. At the same time, national institutions must ensure coherent policies and regulations, avoiding counter-productive incentives.

The report also stresses that inclusion and equity are fundamental to the ag-food system's transformation, with governments and civil society needing to ensure that the transition to a low-emission system supports jobs, health, livelihoods and food security. Furthermore, stakeholder engagement can improve social accountability, while benefit-sharing mechanisms ensure equitable distribution of benefits.

At the same time, structural diversification away from agriculture, as well as skills training, are essential to support current workers. Restorative justice efforts should empower marginalised groups, particularly smallholder farmers, to ensure they benefit from the new low-emission ag-food system.

Critical conclusion

The World Bank report highlights the pivotal role of the global ag-food system in mitigating climate change and calls for urgent, coordinated action to transform agricultural practices globally. Immediate actions and increased financial support can significantly reduce emissions while ensuring global food security and economic stability.

World Bank Senior MD for Development Policy and Partnerships, Axel van Trotsenburg, concludes his foreword in the report, saying: “High-income countries can help the developing world reduce ag-food emissions through technology and climate finance, and reflect environmental costs in the price of domestically produced, high-emitting foods to drive demand toward sustainable alternatives.

“Middle-income countries, where most of the cost-effective mitigation opportunities are to be found, can slow down the conversion of forests to pasture and take steps to cut methane in livestock and rice. Meanwhile, low-emitting developing countries have the chance to go straight to green technologies, leading the way toward a new development model and healthier planet.

“Governments need to create the legal and economic conditions to facilitate this transformation. The mobilisation of finance is essential, both through increased investment and the repurposing of subsidies that encourage environmentally harmful practices.

“This unified action must be inclusive, safeguarding the most vulnerable people on the frontlines of climate change and food insecurity. By uniting around this strategic and humane approach, we can cultivate an ag-food system that nourishes the planet and its people, ensuring the well-being of current and future generations.”

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