Organic agriculture stores more carbon in the soil than conventional agriculture. It has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture because it doesn't use fossil fuel intensive pesticides or fertilizers. Its combination of expanded soil fertility and flexible crop rotations make it more adaptable to the effects of climate change and, in the case of developing countries, may be better suited to produce more food. These are the conclusions of a new paper by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, titled Organic Agriculture and Carbon Sequestration.
The FAO researchers also point out that the precise measuring of carbon sequestration for agriculture is not well developed. This is a problem for those pushing for carbon accounting standards that would designate agriculture as an offset market for polluters (IATP has been critical of this approach) and why most existing carbon accounting systems do not consider agricultural carbon sequestration. Those carbon accounting systems that do consider sequestration do not adequately consider the full contributions of organic agriculture, according to the FAO paper.
Despite these clear advantages, organic agriculture continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to climate policy. At the global climate talks in Copenhagen, the new Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases emphasized the development of new technologies for agriculture. Organic agriculture wasn't mentioned. It's easy to be cynical about this: organic practices are knowledge-based versus techno fixes that are patent-based and benefit agribusiness companies.
Over the next four years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to invest $320 million in climate change mitigation and adaptation research for agriculture. The USDA should read this new FAO report and make sure that organic agriculture has a prominent place on its research agenda.
Accountants are trying to decide whether credits for trading carbon dioxide are assets or whether they are liabilities unless and until firms comply with progressively more stringent annual limits on their greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has estimated the value of credits given away for free to major emitters (or polluters according to the Clean Air Act) under proposed legislation at $50–300 billion USD, depending on the evolution of the carbon price in the commodity futures market. However, if the beneficiary firms fail to invest in a low-carbon economy and fail to comply with their carbon cap, then carbon dioxide emissions are a liability not just for the firm, but for the planet and its people.
This accountancy dilemma was just one problematic aspect of carbon emissions trading GHG-reduction technologies debated at several side meetings that I went to during a week of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. The messages from these meetings ranged widely. There were denunciations of carbon trading as a threat to local efforts to reduce GHGs. Carbon trading proponents asserted that only when the futures market discovered the “right” price for carbon on a consistent basis would major investment flows begin to save the planet from the ravages of climate change. Here are a few anecdotes that illustrate the hopes of the carbon traders and the problems embedded in such hopes.
At Agriculture and Rural Development Day on December 12, an official UNFCCC side event, one of four roundtables was dedicated to “the potential benefits of emissions trading for small-[land]holders." In a plenary address, Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, had reminded participants that more that two billion small holders had begun to be severely affected by climate change. The basis for the potential small-holder benefits would be agricultural practices that would be verified as having reduced GHGs. Following verification, farmers and ranchers would receive a small fraction of the revenues from carbon offset credits that big emitters would buy, to meet their GHG compliance requirements, rather than actually reducing their own pollution. However, as one GHG-reduction verifier stated, there was not a lot of scientific agreement on which agricultural practices could be verified in a quantifiable way as having reduced GHGs.
More than one potential beneficiary voiced displeasure at exacting verification requirements. Robert Carlsen, president of the North Dakota National Farmers Union, told participants that about 4,000 of his members had signed legally binding, multi-year contracts. As an aggregator of GHG reductions, NFU was liable to its members for contract performance to deliver GHG-reduction payments. A Canadian farm official asked if disagreements about verification methodologies prevent his farmers from realizing their anticipated payments, following their investments towards changing how they farm. Other participants suggested that until such time as there was scientific agreement about verification, why not certify farms as having complied with GHG-reduction practices? One participant said that farmers could be certified just as organic farmers are.
Certification of good agricultural practices would not suffice to monitor and verify GHG reductions, said Alex Michaelowa, an offset project developer with Perspectives Climate Change. Without GHG-reduction verification, offset credits could not be sold, nor, it was implied, could farmers receive payments from those sales. Michaelowa said that the science demonstrating GHG reductions from sequestering carbon in soil was “ambiguous.” Although U.S. legislation would start a carbon credit and offset credit market in 2012, it is not clear that there will be agreement on verification methodology for various would-be GHG-reduction agricultural activities in time for the anticipated legislative start of the carbon markets.
For developing countries expecting offset credit payments from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) operated by the World Bank, agriculture and food security are vulnerable to offset development projects, even if GHG reductions can be scientifically verified. One UN Food and Agriculture Organization official estimated that offset revenues could never amount to more than 10 percent of small landholder revenues, so the transaction costs of offset projects would have to be very low to attract the cooperation of farmers. Otherwise, said one participant from India, the transaction costs could damage already economically vulnerable farmers, including commercial farmers.
At the unofficial side events in the Klimaforum, there was widespread opposition to using land in developing countries for offset projects. At “Agrofuels in Africa,” the African Biodiversity Project noted that about 70 percent of African land was communally owned with no formal land titles. The expropriation of these lands for growing biofuels crops and the eviction of their indigenous peoples was predicated on a myth that these lands “marginal” to agricultural production. The contribution that biofuels might make to reducing GHGs by reducing fossil fuel use is controversial. In land classified by governments as “marginal” in order to justify expropriation to benefit investors, dry land agricultural and pastoralist livestock husbandry are the basis of food security and rural development. However, the UNFCCC sustainability criteria for offset projects exclude food security as a climate change concern.
Tanzania, for example, plans to take 20 percent of all its land for biofuels crops. These crops will be processed in Europe to meet the EU mandate of blending 10 percent biofuels with fossil fuels by 2020. Jatropha, a main biodiesel feedstock, survives drought though not enough to produce the berries to be processed into biofuel. Africa will see neither biofuels production for domestic consumption nor the value added benefits of biofuels processing.
Deepak Rugham reported on efforts to return carbon dust to the oil following the burning of biochar in cooking ovens. Why not, instead, cook with solar ovens and indeed, generate electricity through solar power in sun-drenched Africa? He said that the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, the highest body of scientists and engineers, had published their “significant doubts” about biochar as a GHG-reduction technology. Rugham said biochar was a concept that worked in a laboratory but not in an ecology. For more, see www.sparetheair.org.
The views of participants in events organized by the International Emissions Trading Association were more optimistic but focused on the regulatory and technical difficulties of achieving both GHG reductions and a global carbon emissions market. Where Klimaforum participants saw problems IETA saw technical challenges and investment opportunities. One challenge was “carbon leakage,” i.e., competitive trade advantage gained by companies whose governments did not enforce—or very loosely enforced—rules to fulfill GHG-reduction commitments.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) which includes carbon “border adjustment measures,” both tariff and non-tariff measures to impede the entry of products from countries that the U.S. judges to not have a “comparable” GHG-reduction regime. One participant said that if “border adjustment measures” were signed into law by President Barack Obama, all industrialized countries would be compelled to introduce their own measures. There was disagreement about whether such border measures would be consistent with the governments’ commitments to World Trade Organization agreements. But there was general agreement that the WTO could not act as a “policeman” for the UNFCCC.
In a remarkable exchange, Resources for the Future, a U.S. NGO with major corporate backing, asked an EU consultant whether the European Commission was likely to emulate the ACES provision that allowed major emitters to “update” their GHG cap every year, to provide flexibility in meeting the overall 2020 cap. The consultant replied that if emitters were allowed to adjust the cap at their convenience, what would be the incentive for planning to meet the cap? Since the EU GHG-reduction commitment is based on the more stringent 1990 emissions baseline and ACES uses a more emitter-generous 2005 baseline, allowing emitters “updating” flexibility may be the least of the difficulties of linking EU and U.S. carbon markets.
We were able to participate in only one side event in the Bella Center, the site of the UNFCCC negotiations. Increasingly restrictive access culminated with the arrival of the Heads of State, when only 90 of nearly 30,000 registered NGOs were able to enter the Bella Center. That event, hosted by the Carbon Marketing and Investors Association, addressed what investors would need in a climate change agreement to put their money into both a low-carbon economy and GHG-reduction technology. First, said one participants from Bank of America, negotiators would have to produce a “credible cap” on emissions in order to generate demand for buying offset credits and for firms to meet their caps through technology investments. CAMCO, a large offset project developer through the World Bank’s CDM, said that investors needed faster verification of CDM GHG reductions. They couldn’t invest in CDM projects and then wait 3–4 years for verification that would release CDM funds to their investors. The climate change negotiators had to find a way to CDM projects more widely to attract more investors. There were more CDM projects in Chile than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
A UN Environmental Program official, said that UNFCC Long-Term Cooperation public funding would incentivize private investment. Negotiators were debating the terms of a new public investment fund and finance committee. Even after agreement had been reached on a funding framework, level and project management, it would take some time for developing countries to have confidence that private investors were committed to long-term cooperation for offset project development. Vivendi Economic, a consultancy, advised that while public financing can reduce investor risks, there were still political risks, such as host country expropriation of the offset projects. Currency rate volatility is also a big impediment to private investment in offset projects in developing countries. Because of such difficulties, major U.S. GHG emitters are concerned that there will not be enough verifiable offset credits for them to buy to meet their annual GHG caps. The U.S. and EU are counting on meeting at least half of their reduction commitments (whenever and to what extent those become legally binding) by buying offsets.
There is no blog-length way to summarize, much less analyze, the carbon market and anti-carbon market events in Copenhagen. What both sides of the climate change battle made clear, however, is that Copenhagen is just one meeting ground in a long battle. Those hoping to make a lot of money, once a climate change agreement is implemented, may have to wait a long time—time which the climatologists tell us we no longer have before the non-linear, unpredictable effects of climate change unfold.
At his press conference in Copenhagen a few minutes ago, U.S. President Barack Obama said, "This agreement is not the end, but the beginning of a process." In a candid moment discussing the global climate agreement reached today, Obama explained why: the national emission targets to be outlined in the agreement will not achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed by 2050.
Below is our press release on the conclusion of the climate talks, plagued by problems throughout the last week. Let's hope this is only the beginning.
Weak climate deal leaves hard choices for next year
Copenhagen – A watered down political agreement reached today in Copenhagen lacks the firm commitments needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address global climate change, said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Progress on agriculture within the climate talks sets the stage for important negotiations in 2010.
“It’s fortunate that a total breakdown was avoided, but this weak agreement needs to go much further in 2010,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “The meeting lacked both transparency and democratic participation, both inside and outside the negotiating convention. The UN needs to do a comprehensive review of what went wrong in Copenhagen so that we can avoid having tens of thousands of accredited NGOs, including IATP, as well as country delegates locked out of the negotiations.”
“It’s shameful that developed countries still haven’t taken responsibility on climate nor made firm, legally binding commitments,” said Harkness. “Instead, they often attempted to cast developing countries as an obstacle to reaching a deal, even when leaked UNFCCC documents indicated that the total pledges of developing countries were larger than developed countries.”
The controversial ending to the meeting meant that countries did not approve a agriculture work plan for 2010. That work plan had cited the need to safeguard food security and livelihoods in climate adaptation and mitigation, also making specific reference to the interests of small farmers, the rights of indigenous peoples and importance of traditional knowledge. Now, it is unclear when that work plan will be approved.
In contrast to the timid approach of the official negotiations, civil society groups engaged in a series of vigorous discussions throughout the rest of Copenhagen. On December 16, IATP participated in the founding meeting of the Round Table of Organic Agriculture and Climate Change, which established a new international consortium of the world’s leading organic research institutions to provide strong scientific evidence to the SBSTA process and coordinate research efforts on organic agriculture’s solutions to climate change.
Climate justice has been the central focus of the civil society meetings at the Klimaforum this week in Copenhagen. Discussions in the halls and protests on the street have focused on the unfairness of greenhouse gas emissions that have been overwhelmingly generated in the countries of the North but whose impacts will be experienced most severely in the South.
That inequality plays out within countries too, as well as within households. In many cases, it will be women who face the harshest impacts of wild swings of droughts and flooding, ever shrinking growing seasons and competition for diminishing resources. At a session on women and climate change, Ekenma Julia from the University of Nigeria described studies in several local communities showing that women are already more aware of climate change than men. Some 61 percent were aware of recent climate change, compared to 34 percent of men. Those women tended to earn incomes selling poultry or vegetables or other jobs that were dependent on nature in some way. They were also more likely than men to already be doing what they could to cope with these changes, such as building rainwater catchment systems to confront increasing droughts. Nigerian women’s groups and their allies were demanding that rich countries drastically lower their emissions and that gender issues be mainstreamed into climate talks.
The World March of Women held a meeting to talk about how to refocus some of their work on the impacts of climate change and women's demands. Women from Brazil, the Philippines, Peru and the UK talked about how climate change is aggravating existing inequality. They are considering how to shift some of their campaign efforts to take this new challenge into account.
In some ways, climate change seems like a new lens to focus on existing problems of gender inequality, food security and livelihoods. The difference is that weather extremes and shifts in resources could mean that those problems become much worse. The tepid responses in the official negotiations aren’t nearly enough. We need more of the sense of urgency, righteous indignation and calls to action taking place in the Klimaforum.
A number of groups from 28 different countries, including IATP, have issued an open letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider the climate emissions reduction target put forward in Copenhagen today.
"A reduction by the United States of only 3 percent below 1990, contingent on greenhouse gas cuts by China and other developing countries, is scientifically unsound and deeply unjust," says the letter.
The letter concludes by saying: "If ever there was a time for you to exert bold leadership, this is it. Last week you received the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, we call on you to earn it."
The full letter, including a list of signing groups, is available on our climate page.
One of the benefits to the U.S.’s proposed cap-and-trade–based climate legislation is the profitability it would offer farmers through an agriculture-based offset program. That, at least, is what we’ve been told by the schemes' authors and supporters (Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack, etc.).
It was surprising, then, to hear Stabenow aide Chris Adamo confess his uncertainty over how long it would take for farmers to actually begin receiving offset credits for carbon sequestering activities during a panel discussion here in Copenhagen on Wednesday.
“I can't tell you farmers would get credit if this bill were passed tomorrow,” said Adamo, one of several U.S. and European panelists discussing agriculture's emissions reduction potential at a side event sponsored by the International Emissions Trading Association.
Wow. Score one for the no-ag-offsets team. I’ve written a lot about the trouble with agricultural offsets recently (see here and here), including the uncertainty offsets could create for farmers. This sounds about as uncertain as you can get.
We know agriculture done right can be a boon for climate mitigation. Offsets are NOT the way to get there. We need monetary support, lots of it, to help farmers transition to different ways of farming. We need that support to be consistent, predictable and substantial enough to really matter. Offsets can promise none of those things. Look for more writing soon about other ways we might get there.
From day one of the global climate talks, discussions within the Bella Center (home of the official negotiations) have differed greatly from those at the Klima Forum (home of NGO-led discussions). Put simply, at the Bella Center the main issue of contention is money—not the climate. A new pledge of money from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has supposedly jump-started the talks. This money is targeted toward developing countries suffering the effects of climate change. But there's something for developed countries too—money to be made within a new carbon market—where buyers and sellers trade carbon credits.
At the Klima Forum, the theme is "system change." Namely, how do we transform the global economy away from a fossil-fueled intensive, unsustainable path and shift toward a different system that values the protection of the earth. It is filled with critiques of our current polluting economy, but also ideas for bottom-up change within communities, cities and regions for a new low-carbon economy. IATP and others will talk about this new vision for both cities and agriculture at a workshop tomorrow at the Klima Forum. Perhaps it is symbolic that this panel was originally scheduled to be in the Bella Center, but was canceled after the UN kicked out nearly all accredited NGO observer organizations.
Tonight, UK barrister Polly Higgins outlined a very different approach to considering the climate at the Klima Forum. Instead of looking at carbon as a commodity, Higgins asserted that we should establish a Planet Earth Trust, where we are all trustees who accept responsibility for the earth's future. "The planet is a capital asset and we the people have a responsibility to ensure this asset is protected, not exploited." Higgins is proposing that the UN establish a system of Planetary Rights—a commons-based idea that would certainly change the dimension of climate talks.
It's idealistic, perhaps not politically practical right now, but also represents the important, creative thinking going on at the Klima Forum that is focused first and foremost on addressing climate change. Five years from now, it is likely that new ideas at the Klima Forum supporting efforts on the ground will eclipse the big money talks in the Bella Center.
As of late last night, December 15, the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen are deadlocked. According to excellent Third World Network reporting, developed country governments want to scrap the Kyoto Protocol and draft a new agreement that would allow developed countries to choose the baseline from which they would make greenhouse gas (GHG) emission cuts. (The Kyoto Protocol requires GHG cuts from a 1990 baseline, whereas U.S. climate change legislation proposes cuts from the much higher 2005 baseline, to ease the burden on U.S. industry.) The developed country governments also want developing countries to commit to emissions reductions, which is not a provision of the Kyoto Protocol. At a contact group session, a U.S. negotiator said that the United States would never ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
It does not seem likely that the arrival tomorrow of more than a hundred heads of state will lead to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, whose first GHG reduction commitment period ends in 2012. Nor does it seem likely that the presidents and prime ministers will agree to launch negotiations for a new agreement. In the midst of this logjam, why are advocates for water as a human right proposing to add water to the climate change negotiations agenda?
Advocates for water as a human right made the proposal at an event last night in the Klimaforum, the site of the unofficial side events to the negotiations. “A Call for Water Justice in Copenhagen” was read out to general applause from participants in the event, “World Water Movements and CoP 15: Proposals and strategies for water and climate justice.” IATP’s Shiney Varghese helped to draft the two page call, which asserted that “The effects of climate change on water will directly affect agriculture and the food security of billions. The agricultural sector, accounting for 70 percent of global water use, is not only affected by climate change but can also help to mitigate it,” i.e., to repair the economic and environmental damage caused by climate change. The call proposes that by 2012, governments negotiate a legally binding World Water Agreement to be administered by a World Water Agency under United Nations auspices.
Water policy advocates want to get a foot in the door of the negotiations, as agricultural policy advocates have just achieved. This year agriculture became a topic of climate change discussions for the first time and the International Federation of Agricultural Producers was recognized as the Farmer’s “focal point” (representative group) of the a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In response to a question from Klimaforum participants about why water policy advocates should get involved in the protracted and deadlocked negotiations, Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, said that the first effects of climate change had arrived in the form of drought, floods, melting glaciers and their social, economic and environmental consequences. Water is the “first face” of climate change. However the United Nations had ceded control of water governance to the World Water Forum, a transnational corporate association. Although the UN system itself is dominated by transnational corporations, Barlow believes that the UN must assert global governance over water as a global public good and human right. The climate change negotiations offer both a venue and a crucial issue though which the UN system, aided by civil society, can take back water as a global public good and reject the transnational corporate commodification of water.
There were more than a dozen speakers at the three hour long Klimaforum water event and no summary here can do them justice, but three speakers stood out as representative of the issues discussed. Professor Ricardo Petrella presented a “Memorandum for a World Water Protocol,” that resulted from a World Political Forum conference with the European Parliament in February 2009. He said of the climate change negotiations, “Our leaders believe that the future of the world depends on price of carbon emissions [in a UN approved carbon trading scheme]. That’s criminal. That’s nonsense.” Improving water use is a more effective climate change mitigation practice than relying on “market mechanisms” to find the "right" carbon price to induce investments in a low carbon economy.
Michal Kravcik, of the Kosice Civic Protocol gave a powerful and detailed overview of various technical projects, distributed to over 7,000 institutions, for climate change mitigation through anti-flood protection, rain-water harvesting, anti-erosion techniques and other water mediated mitigation means. He showed projects not only from his native Slovakia, but from projects in Africa to prevent desertification that exacerbates climate change.
Alivio Aruquipa, of the Bolivian mountain community of Khapi, closed the event by discussing the loss of potable water, food security and livelihoods as the Ilimani glacier above his village of 190 people disappeared. If the shrinking of the glacier could not be reversed, his people would be forced to migrate. Aruquipa’s sobering account depicted a future that now directly affects the most vulnerable populations but soon could directly affect us all if there is no effective global governance of water, combined with local projects to make the use of water sustainable and the fulfillment of a human right.
This morning as I was getting ready for another day of climate work I heard police sirens and shouting outside the window of our hotel here in Copenhagen. I looked out just in time to see a pretty brutal take-down of protestors by police. We're only a few blocks away from the Bella Center, the massive conference hall where the negotiations are taking place, and today a large march had been planned across town, ending at Bella. I saw protestors running, coming I assume from a nearby metro station, one of two meet-up points for activists. As I watched, police with dogs chased the protestors, slamming them to the ground in a show of force that seemed pretty unjustifiable for weaponless activists. As you can see from some of the photos below, several of the police were clearly undercover, dressed as activists. Nothing new as far as riot police tactics go, but chilling just the same. As I sit writing this in our hotel lobby, I've watched no fewer than 30 police vans fly by with sirens blaring. Copenhagen is under a state of virtual martial law, and police are able to search and arrest anyone, at any time, for any cause. "Preventative measures," they've said.
In a way, this is one of the biggest stories to come of COP15. Not this protest specifically, or these arrests, but the two worlds that have formed here: an "official" one made up of negotiators and heads of state that hovers just out of reach of the other world, the one the rest of us make up—NGOs, activists, students, youths and citizens.
We've spent hours alongside thousands waiting in the cold to get Bella Center access. We finally got in, but it won't last. The UN has progressively whittled down NGO access over the week. We just heard that the environmental group Friends of the Earth has been banned entirely from the Bella Center, and none of us will be there for the final (and most important) days of negotiation. So much for a democratic process.
Ultimately, though, I'm not sure it matters much whether we're in the Bella Center or not. It's seeming increasingly unlikely that a binding deal is going to come out of this meeting, and if it does, it's probably even more unlikely that it will mean much at all. Yesterday, negotiators took all the numbers (emission cap levels, etc.) out of the text for now. Not a hopeful place to be with just two days to go.
Two worlds here in Copenhagen, the one that cares mostly about looking as though they're making progress, happy to end the week with a watered down "agreement," and the one that knows that time is running out for real action. This is our chance, and I don't think we'll get many more of them.
While IATP staff (among many other delegates, NGOs and even country delegates) have been struggling to stay on schedule in Copenhagen due to over-booking (on the part of the UNFCCC), our press conference today (December 15) went on as scheduled. We focused on the importance of including agriculture in the climate negotiations with a panel including:
The discussion addressed the adaptation and mitigation potential of agriculture as related to climate change, and the importance of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)—a global blueprint for a transition in agriculture that both addresses food security and climate change.
The press conference can be viewed on the COP 15 on-demand page or below: