What’s at Stake for Agriculture in COP 18?

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Think Forward blog/ IATP

What’s at Stake for Agriculture in COP 18?

The biggest threat for agriculture at the 18th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is the certain likelihood (oxymoron intended) of “non-decisions” for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires. Bill McKibben’s widely circulated article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math tells us in starkly clear terms what we need to do to set things right:

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

McKibben lays out in simple terms what we policy advocates and scientists have failed to do thus far: convince the average citizen in the industrialized world why immediate, ambitious and drastic cuts in our fossil fuel use is necessary to prevent the deadliest impacts of global warming, not just for future generations, but for this generation. Yet, government representatives will be going to the climate talks prepared to take years to cobble together a legally binding deal to cut emissions worth the paper they sign. 

We are nearly three-quarters of the way to using the maximum gigatons of carbon scientists thought we could “safely” use until 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate impacts. The time to turn this around is the next sixteen years—this means we must hit our peak fossil fuel use within the next six to seven years, and this is exactly what governments will be discussing in Doha: what to do in the next six to seven years on climate change. For all governments going to the COP, and especially for the United States, this is neither an election issue nor one that will result in a political crisis. Hurricane Sandy might have done more to convince Americans (on the East Coast, anyway) of the consequences of non-action than anything else has to date. 

Devastation of agriculture and food systems worldwide, of course, will be one major calamity of this non-action. We already see it in the droughts in the Midwest, the floods in Pakistan and Australia and the erratic weather patterns that are making it difficult for food growers today. All this with just a .8-degree temperature rise in the past century. Scientists now know that even a total two degree temperature rise (the number governments have finally agreed on as the global limit) is too much. 

Yet, the discussions in Doha around agriculture are surprisingly not about the devastation of non-action on food systems. The COP 18 discussions will be about how to address agriculture in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA), a technical body that provides advice and responds to scientific, technological and methodological questions from the COP and the Kyoto Protocol Parties. IATP has long insisted that the primary focus of agriculture discussions in the UNFCCC must be on how agriculture and small producers can adapt to climate change and how this adaptation challenge can be financed. If we truly want to address agriculture emissions, let’s start by setting targets for reducing nitrous oxides and methane from industrial farms and transitioning to agroecological practices. Yet, the World Bank, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and other industrialized countries have pushed since 2008 to find in agriculture another big loophole to hide their actual emissions by developing offsets in the land use and land-use change sectors (which include forestry and agriculture) and trading them on speculative financial markets in the form of carbon credits. 

So far, developing countries have stemmed the tide, but the World Bank has been lobbying several developing-country agriculture ministries to influence their environment ministries to say “yes” to a work program that would help them create these carbon offsets. The irony here is that the entire African continent contributes less than 4 percent to the very problem that will devastate their food production systems, meanwhile Africans are being asked to do their bit to mitigate rather than North Americans whose per capita emissions are 14 times that of our counterparts in Africa. Though the very existence of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and the second commitment period (2013–2020) hang in the balance of the enormous deadlock in the UNFCCC, the last meeting of the Kyoto Protocol Parties (CMP) at COP 17 in Durban requested the SBSTA to start work programmes on 1.) the possibility of expanding the activities that could be included for accounting in LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry), i.e., inclusion certain agricultural activities such as soil carbon) 2.) possibilities of expanding the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to include additional land use, land-use change and forestry activities (i.e., soil carbon) and 3.) figure out how to get carbon credits for soil and better credits for forest carbon in the CDM even though science is demonstrating that carbon cannot be stored permanently in agriculture or forest systems for a large number of scientific and technical reasons.  Officially, the decision from Durban on this work program was phrased in the following arcane manner:

...a work programme to consider and, as appropriate, develop and recommend modalities and procedures for alternative approaches to addressing the risk of nonpermanence under the clean development mechanism with a view to forwarding a draft decision on this matter to the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol for adoption at its ninth session [in late 2013]  (para 7, Decision 2/CMP.7)

In addition, the SBSTA was asked to initiate a work program to determine how to address “additionality” in LULUCF. The program would focus on how governments can prove that the practices being adopted to reduce emissions or absorb carbon in the soil or forests is actually additional to what they would have done in the first place in a business as usual scenario. A critical question here: how would they even know it is additional given the problems related to non-permanence? 

McKibben’s math is indeed terrifyingly simple: we have 565 gigatons of carbon as a global community to spend to limit a global temperature rise to 2 degrees (which scientists say is already too much) with a window of time that is closing on us. The coal, gas and oil reserves that have already been bought and paid for, but as of yet remain unused, total 2795 gigatons:  five times the number we can justify and still have a livable planet. Keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than playing shell games with agriculture and forests, and determining equitable burden sharing between developed and developing countries, are the urgent tasks at hand. And, while we are doing that, we need to begin cleaning up the mess that’s already been created, particularly as peasants, fisherfolk and pastoralists struggle to cope with increasing climate chaos.

In contrast, the government representatives that get paid by our tax dollars to negotiate the climate treaty are truly having a difficult time distinguishing the forest from the trees. How long will we allow governments and intergovernmental organizations (who are also paid with tax dollars) to continue this game of smoke and mirrors with carbon sinks and carbon markets? The next six to seven years are literally game changers in humanity’s ability to tackle climate change. It’s time we all (especially us in the United States) made this a clear political mandate for our governments.

Shefali Sharma

Shefali Sharma is a senior advisor with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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