During the first week of COP17 in Durban, South Africa, agriculture was a hot topic. There was already a robust focus on the issue amid the side events happening parallel to the negotiations and the topic should continue to warm as the negotiations themselves ramp up over the final few days of the Convention. With South African President Jacob Zuma’s high-profile push to get agriculture on the COP’s agenda and the hope that momentum is still lingering from COP16 in Cancun, COP17 seems more primed than any United Nations Climate Change Conference before it to thoroughly address the issue.
Why the Attention?
The intersections between agriculture and climate change are critical. It is estimated that the sector contributes between 14 and 25% percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (not including emissions from the packaging or transporting of agricultural products, numbers which could push these estimates up toward 50%), with industrialized methods of agriculture responsible for a hefty portion of those amounts. Trends in emissions from agriculture in developing countries are also important, as emissions from developing countries increased by 30% between 1990 and 2005 and there are indications that emissions will continue to increase even more sharply.
In what makes for a poignant dichotomy, agricultural production itself also stands to be harshly impacted by the effects of a climate change. Major losses in global crop productivity and food security will occur as the planet warms. With even slight global temperature changes, agricultural productivity in the tropics and subtropics will be tremendously hampered; areas of Africa and Asia will likely be devastated by desertification; and the U.S. will endure shifting agricultural patterns that will have far-reaching economic and social ramifications. Africa is poised to be the hardest hit by climate-induced food insecurity, a worry that is likely contributing to agriculture’s prevalence as this COP unfolds on the continent.
Yet, the relationships between agriculture and climate change are not all so daunting. As those proposing agriculture be built into the Framework are quick to point out, the sector holds potential to positively affect both mitigation and adaptation efforts, with many of its mitigation activities intuitive and cost-effective to implement and its adaptation potential being linked to moves toward sustainable, secure, and equitable agricultural production.
A UNFCCC History
Despite the important and well-known connections between agriculture and climate change, allusion to the sector within United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] texts are spotty and superficial, and agriculture has not yet been officially recognized as part of UN mitigation and adaptation strategies. Historically, agriculture has not been as widely discussed COPs as it has this year, neither in regard to its potential roles in -mitigation-- through soil carbon sequestration possibilities--nor in its potential to be a malleable and worthwhile focus of adaptation efforts. It was not until COP14 in Bonn, Germany that agriculture was given its own workshop during the negotiations.
The lack of official focus on agriculture did begin to lift during last year’s COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. There, agriculture was given substantial consideration during the negotiations as part of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) and the National Adaptation Programmes of Action [NAPAs]. The topic of agriculture was eventually dropped from the formal text right as the negotiations of COP16 came to a close (due to a lack of consensus on how exactly to fit agriculture into the text), but the progress made in earning the sector attention probably has much to do with agriculture’s more prominent consideration at COP17.
COP17 and Agriculture, The 1st Week
Many of this year’s conference attendees (negotiators and observers alike) have agriculture on the forefront of their agendas. Walking through the Durban Exhibition Centre, where hundreds of NGO booths are set up like they are at a climate change trade show, one could gather hundreds of pieces of literature (believe me, I did it! I collected so much material that I was forced to check a second bag when I flew home.) on agriculture, food security, and climate change.
Within the negotiation halls, agriculture is being discussed during informal AWG-LCA and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice [SBSTA] meetings. Delegates and negotiating blocs representing varied countries from across the planet have come armed with proposals for defining specific work programs for the sector (the U.S., India, New Zealand, and the Least Developed Countries), with statements on why it is important to include agriculture as an official sector in the main conference texts (Brazil and Panama), and reasons to link agricultural development to the Green Carbon Fund, mitigation funding, and REDD+.
During an informal meeting for the AWG-LCA which I attended last Friday, December 2nd, agriculture arose as a high-priority agenda item. The Chinese delegation in the room touted the agriculture issue as, “very important for developing countries” and described its being included in the UNFCCC process “as a way to move forward.” The Brazilian delegation, whose messages were later echoed by that of the Malawian delegation, urged that the group should “dedicate as much time as possible on this issue.” The U.S. delegation also introduced a plan to push forward the creation of a work program for agriculture under the SBSTA, a proposition that New Zealand, “strongly supports,” and which I suspect will generate much dialogue behind closed doors as the AWG-LCA attempts transition to decision-making mode over the next few days. The remaining days of the convention should also see President Zuma’s continuing proselytizing on agriculture and food security front, bringing even more attention to the sector.
The issue sure seems ripe. Will Durban see agriculture making it past the negotiations and finding an official spot in the Framework text by the end of the two weeks of negotiations? Will agriculture be given an SBSTA work program? The next few days should provide us with the answers to these questions, but look for future blog posts to explore what all this might mean for the future of agriculture, climate change, and global equity.