Dairy production has opposing effects on climate change. It generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but can regulate climate through carbon storage in soils. Hence, cattle rearing management techniques can strongly impact on the sustainability of this activity. Nevertheless, studies reveal that knowledge gaps exist amongst French dairy farmers about the use of different agricultural practices on GHG emissions, and the availability of new innovative practices that reduces carbon footprints. Work is thus needed to increase awareness amongst French dairy sector stakeholders about their role in contributing to the EUs climate action agenda.
The main objective of the LIFE Carbon Dairy project was to promote a milk production approach that is capable of reducing GHG emissions by 20% over 10 years. To achieve this goal, the partners aimed to: provide livestock farmers with tools to understand the issue so they can modify their technical choices to reduce GHG emissions and preserve carbon stored in soils; promote innovative livestock farming systems and associated practices; launch a national campaign to demonstrate to livestock farmers and agricultural advisers the feasibility of a 'climate roadmap' for milk production; and develop this 'roadmap' for milk production with carbon action plans adapted to each production system and a relevant partnership strategy implemented at the national level. The project aimed to conduct these actions in six representative dairy regions of France, with the involvement of 3 900 farms to enable a large-scale assessment of carbon impact.
LIFE Carbon Dairy successfully achieved its objectives. The project team developed a tool called CAP2ER for calculating carbon emissions on dairy farms (per litre of milk). This is both an awareness-raising tool and a decision-making tool that provides action levers to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy production at the farm level.
At the start of the project, beneficiaries carried out an assessment of the carbon emissions on more than 3 900 dairy farms across six targeted regions in France. Individual results were presented by farm advisors to the farmers and levers of action were discussed. The beneficiaries also conducted a comprehensive analysis of all the data collected, by farming system and by region. A second assessment was conducted at the end of the project on 3 720 farms, and the results were compared with the first assessment for 2 314 farms. The analysis showed that between the two assessments a significant reduction in GHG emissions was achieved, amounting to about 127 000 t of CO2 eq. saved (close to the objective of 139 671 t of CO2 eq.). A more in-depth analysis was done for 58 selected "innovative" farms where ad hoc action plans had been defined.
The project team established a climate roadmap for the dairy sector, to which all relevant stakeholders signed up (interbranch organisation, national representatives of agricultural chambers, national federation of farm advisory companies, and the technical institute for livestock farming IDELE). The objective set in the roadmap was the same as the overarching project objective, i.e. reducing the carbon footprint of the dairy sector by 20% by 2025. The climate roadmap includes a set of 12 carbon plans, for different types of farming systems, and useful guidelines for farm advisors and farmers to develop farm-level carbon plans.
It was the first time that the carbon footprint of dairy production was assessed at such a large scale, using a single methodology. As a result of its scope, the project has a high demonstration value. For this reason, and thanks to intense communication and dissemination activities, the project approach/methodology started to be replicated at the national level only two years after the project started. The project experience/results have been transferred to the beef sector, within the LIFE Beef carbon project, and the coordinating beneficiary also plans to transfer the approach to the sheep sector.
The CAP2ER calculation methodology was certified by the organic certification organisation Ecocert in 2017, and a business plan was established to ensure future maintenance and updating of the tool. The project experience was also used in the definition of standards for a credit carbon scheme in cattle farming, an initiative developed by the Ministry of ecology. Carbon credit mechanisms offer incentives to move towards in-depth changes in livestock farming systems. The reduced carbon emission of 2 314 farms within the short time span of the project may be partly attributed to the recommendations made by farm advisors when they presented the first assessment results. It may also be due to circumstantial or contextual factors (e.g. good climate conditions favouring grass yields and milk productivity). However, the real success of the project was that it significantly contributed to the development of low-carbon livestock farming, making it a topical issue both for economic operators (in particular, interbranch organisations) and policymakers. The project is relevant to achieving the targets of the European Commissions Roadmap for moving to a competitive low-carbon economy in 2050 (COM(2011)112), particularly a 20% reduction in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector by 2025.
The socio-economic situation of dairy farmers is difficult, due to low profitability. Project results showed a positive correlation between environmental and economic performance. The impact of the project was assessed by comparing the results of the top ten farms having the lowest carbon emissions, with the results of all the other farms on a range of criteria. The results suggest that by seeking to reduce carbon emissions, the project contributed to the sustainability of dairy farms by improving their efficiency and productivity, and reducing their global environmental impacts. Carbon plans established for each farming system are expected to have similar impacts.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).