The European Union will monitor emissions from land use and forestry in more detail after 2020.
CO2 emissions from Finnish fields are decreasing, but there is still plenty to be done in agriculture to combat climate change.
Fields and forests are not included in the EU emission reductions as of yet, but this will change in 2020 when the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector, which includes fields and forests, will be included in the scope of the new accounting rules and emission reduction obligations.
Kristiina Regina, a research professor at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (Luke), has studied what the new EU emissions accounting will mean for Finland.
“The new rules mean that emissions from the soil will be accounted for in more detail. The climate goals will be easier to achieve if the soil in agricultural land areas is a carbon net sink instead of a source of emissions,” Regina explains.
Cattle, fields and energy used in agriculture constitute 20% of Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions. If the emissions from fields and forests are combined, many farms are carbon neutral.
However, according to Regina it seems that land use included in the LULUCF sector cannot be made carbon neutral with the EU’s new calculation rules.
“Soil emissions are more difficult to change than energy and other sources of emissions. The carbon balance of soil that is not in its natural state is not good,” Regina says.
Peat soil fields are a major source of emissions in Finnish agriculture. Organic soil is not as extensively cultivated in the other EU member states.
“The carbon content of fields with mineral soil decreases by 220 kilograms per hectare per year. 5,000 kilograms more carbon per hectare is emitted from organic soil,” says researcher Jaakko Heikkinen from Luke.
The latest statistics look positive: the increase in emissions from fields has stopped.
“Emissions from mineral soil have decreased. In the case of organic soil, the emissions have not increased, because fewer land areas with organic soil are being cleared,” Heikkinen says.
Most peat soil land was cleared between 2000 and 2005.
“Only 10% of the cultivated area is organic soil, but organic soil produces the most CO2 emissions. The best way to reduce emissions is to stop clearing peat soil lands. If peat soil is used, it should be used to cultivate grass,” Heikkinen says.
Other good means of binding carbon include keeping the ground covered with plants all year round, spreading manure more evenly over the entire field area to ensure that there is more carbon in mineral soil, and using varied crop rotation.
“Why do we still use unbalanced monocultures in our fields even though all farmers agree that crop rotation is a good thing?” Regina wonders.
Heikkinen says that farmers can be easily motivated to participate in the fight against climate change.
“Having carbon in soil benefits everybody: it retains a good soil structure and ensures high yields. So there is no contradiction except in the case of peat soil. Peat soil lands are bad for the climate regardless of the farming method.”
Kristiina Regina agrees:
“I wish that Finnish food could be produced without clearing any new peat soil fields.”
Regina presumes that no new limitations for farmers are coming.
“The current rural development programme extends up to 2020. After that, environmental compensation for new actions is to be expected. Farmers will be given incentives instead of punishments.”
Regina’s work involves influencing the development of emission statistics and calculation guidelines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“Many farmers carry out environmentally friendly actions that cannot be seen in the statistics. We must use sufficiently long monitoring periods and academic research to include these actions in the statistics,” Regina says.
One of the most promising new carbon binding methods is the use of catch crops. For example rye-grass is cultivated in addition to the crop to use up the nitrogen left behind by the crop. When the rye-grass is tilled, it adds more carbon to the soil.
Regina says that soil emissions can be reduced by around ten per cent.
“The situation is being closely monitored by the EU. An emission reduction would be considered a feather in the farmers’ cap.”
Text: Marjatta Sihvonen
Photo on top of the page: Kristiina Regina /Luke
Published in Finnish in Maaseudun Tulevaisuus on 7th of August 2017.