Abstract

Greenhouse gas emissions from global agriculture are increasing at around 1% per annum, yet substantial cuts in emissions are needed across all sectors1. The challenge of reducing agricultural emissions is particularly acute, because the reductions achievable by changing farming practices are limited2,3 and are hampered by rapidly rising food demand4,5. Here we assess the technical mitigation potential offered by land sparing—increasing agricultural yields, reducing farmland area and actively restoring natural habitats on the land spared6. Restored habitats can sequester carbon and can offset emissions from agriculture. Using the UK as an example, we estimate net emissions in 2050 under a range of future agricultural scenarios. We find that a land-sparing strategy has the technical potential to achieve significant reductions in net emissions from agriculture and land-use change. Coupling land sparing with demand-side strategies to reduce meat consumption and food waste can further increase the technical mitigation potential—however, economic and implementation considerations might limit the degree to which this technical potential could be realized in practice.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund for Conservation, and we thank its major sponsor Arcadia. We thank J. Bruinsma for the provision of demand data, the CEH for the provision of soil data and J. Spencer for invaluable discussions. A.L. was supported by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. T.B., K.G. and J.P. acknowledge BBSRC funding through grant BBS/E/C/00005198.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing St, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Anthony Lamb
    • , Rhys Green
    • , Tim Kasoar
    • , Ben Phalan
    • , Erasmus K. H. J. zu Ermgassen
    •  & Andrew Balmford
  2. RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy SG19 2DL, UK

    • Rhys Green
    • , Ellie Crane
    •  & Rob Field
  3. Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) at the Society, Economy and Environment Institute (SEE-I), Department of Politics, The University of Exeter, Mail Room, The Old Library, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter EX4 4SB, UK

    • Ian Bateman
  4. Forestry Commission, Alice Holt, Farnham, Surrey GU10 4LH, UK

    • Mark Broadmeadow
  5. Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ, UK

    • Toby Bruce
    • , Keith Goulding
    •  & John Pickett
  6. School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0519, USA

    • Jennifer Burney
  7. Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EA, UK

    • Pete Carey
    •  & Howard Griffiths
  8. School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, Deiniol Rd., Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, UK

    • David Chadwick
  9. Scottish Food Security Alliance-Crops, ClimateXChange & Institute of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Aberdeen, 23 St Machar Drive, Aberdeen AB24 3UU, UK

    • Astley Hastings
    •  & Pete Smith
  10. ADAS UK Ltd, Boxworth, Cambridge CB23 4NN, UK

    • Daniel Kindred
  11. ClimateXChange & Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JG, UK

    • Eileen Wall

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Contributions

A.B., A.L. and R.G. conceived the study. A.L. conducted the analysis and prepared the manuscript. A.H., D.K., E.W., K.G., P.C., P.S. and R.F. supplied data. All authors contributed in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anthony Lamb.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2910

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