Farm groups talk climate in Cochabamba

Posted April 20, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochamamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Bolivia Thousands of people from around the world streamed into the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC) on Monday to continue discussions that started online on a range of issues related to climate justice. The location of the conference itself makes a political statement. This is the ten-year anniversary of the Cochabamba “Water War,” when thousands of local people rose up against the privatization of their water system. Walking into the conference site, the dramatic backdrop of the Andean mountains makes its own statement.

The online discussions were organized into 17 working groups on topics ranging from emissions reductions and finance to issues not on the official agenda, like migration and climate debt. Talks also centered on strategies, including the possible launch of a global peoples’ referendum on climate change. The final documents will help to shape the Bolivian government's positions on climate change and hopefully influence other government delegations arriving later in the week. 

Cochabamba More than 900 people registered for the working group on agriculture and food sovereignty (our contribution is summarized here) and, of those, 130 submitted comments electronically. Those talks continued in Cochabamba with presentations by Via Campesina, who asserted that as much as 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with industrial agriculture. This includes emissions all along the production chain, including processing, packaging and transport (especially for export). On the other hand, converting to agroecological, locally oriented, smaller-scale production could lower emissions as much as 50 to 75 percent, while advancing food sovereignty, according to Via Campesina.

The working group discussions continued throughout the day, focusing on the need to address the role of agribusiness in climate change, the obstacles created by free trade and the climate challenges facing women, among other issues. Organizers worked late into the night to incorporate comments into new drafts of the position papers to be finalized in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of the papers, these talks have deeply involved farm organizations, raised the profile of agriculture and climate, and led to new ideas moving forward.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

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People's Conference on Climate Change next week

Posted April 16, 2010

After official UN global climate talks stumbled again in Bonn last week, another global gathering will take a shot at reaching agreement on a plan to address climate change. Next week, the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth will run from April 19–22 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The gathering is expected to attract civil society groups around the world, along with developing country–government representatives, to develop alternative proposals to address global climate change.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is leading the call for the meeting after many developing-country governments were frustrated with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in December, which produced the Copenhagen Accord. Last week's Bonn meeting, the first since Copenhagen, revealed the growing rift between countries who want to continue negotiations based on the Kyoto Protocol and others, led by the U.S., who want to use the Copenhagen Accord as the basis for negotiations. IATP has been critical of the accord and the negotiating process in Copenhagen.

Organizers for the World People's Conference have set up 18 working groups to develop proposals on various aspects of a global climate treaty. IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn will report from Cochabamba next week. She is part of the "Agriculture and Food Sovereignty" and "Dangers of Carbon Markets" working groups. You can read Karen's submission on agriculture and climate change. A summary of IATP's concerns about the susceptibility of carbon markets to Wall Street speculators can be read here in English and in Spanish.

More from Cochabamba next week....

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Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Posted March 3, 2010

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

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Community building and climate justice

Posted February 17, 2010

The non-binding Copenhagen Accord effectively failed to respond to the threat of climate change at the international level. Nationally, U.S. legislators are in limbo—some arguing for cap and trade, others for cap and dividend, and still others insisting that climate change simply doesn't exist. These stalemates—combined with the historical injustices that have left developing nations (internationally) and people of color and the indigenous (nationally) bearing the brunt of imbalanced policy decisions—beg the question: What can we do here and now to combat climate change and ensure that our communities have a place at the table?

Community members, artists and activists met at the All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis for the "Communities of Color and Indigenous Peoples Climate Justice Debriefing" hosted by IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) on Monday night. CEED Senior Policy Fellow Dr. Cecilia Martinez and CEED Director Shalini Gupta shared their experiences at the Copenhagen climate talks—one, not uniquely, full of long lines and being denied entry—and discussed the importance of working at the local level and utilizing indigenous knowledge in addressing climate justice issues.

Dr. Rose Brewer, a member of CEED's advisory board, summarized her experience in Pittsburgh at the most recent G-20 summit where demonstrators, organizers and activists worked hard to be heard. Among many other things, they hosted a People's Tribunal, putting the G-20 to trial for the impacts of their policies around the world with testimony from community members and policy experts. And, of course, there was a verdict. As she asked last night—can you guess what it was?

So, what can indigenous communities and communities of color do, on the ground level, to battle injustice and address climate change? Moderator LeMoine LaPoint (also a member of CEED's advisory board) talked about the power of indigenous knowledge—the fact that people have known about climate change for a while, even if the scientific community has only recently caught on. He then asked the group for emerging solutions they envision for their communities and organizations. Some common themes included sharing information among groups and linking organizations in order to create a stronger voice; becoming united under a holistic approach to changing consumption and production patterns; and using arts, ceremony and ritual to control the story, rather than internalizing the current system that unfairly impacts minorities, the indigenous and the impoverished.

The issue of green capitalism came up as well: one participant compared it to installing solar panels on the Titanic while making sure it doesn't change course—i.e., the same companies advocating for "green business" have a heavy interest in making sure the power structure stays the same. This issue of framing struck a chord with many in the room: Is the system broken, or working as it's supposed to in maintaining the status quo? Is climate justice an environmental issue or one of an economic and power structure that needs to change?

In the end, the group seemed to agree that keys to success were communication, building alliances and reaching a critical mass to take control of resources and energy consumption in their community, currently controlled by corporations and private interests. Energy sharing, cooperative solutions and developing sustainable systems through local food and energy production were all cited as potential projects. Furthermore, the idea of establishing a meeting place where organizers and community members could come together and discuss ongoing work gained traction around the room.

Was last night's meeting the start of something big for Minneapolis? It's very possible. What's certain, however, is that community building can happen now, while international summits and legislative filibusters are still floundering.


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Checking the Copenhagen report card

Posted February 3, 2010

Under the Copenhagen Accord, January 31 was the deadline for participating countries to report their commitments to reduce climate change. The U.S. Climate Network has the list of country commitments including the U.S., EU, China, India and Brazil. According to the UN, fifty-five countries in total—representing over 78 percent of global emissions—made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A quick perusal of the numbers, however, casts doubt on their value. They include a mix of goals that use different baseline years and measurements for reductions, making it difficult to compare commitments between countries. For example, many countries have emission targets. Others, like China, use carbon intensity (fossil fuels per economic unit). The weakness of the U.S. proposal stands out. Its proposed 17-percent reduction in emissions by 2020 is contingent on the passage of U.S. climate change legislation (Hello? Congress?).

The positive spin is that many countries are making their first public commitments within an international context. Some are raising previously announced goals and most are going ahead with national initiatives of some sort, despite the emptiness of the accord. Equally important is that by submitting their reduction goals, countries are demonstrating a willingness to continue working through the UN process despite its trials and tribulations.

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Organic agriculture and climate policy

Posted January 20, 2010

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.

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Trading carbon emissions: Turning a liability into an asset?

Posted December 22, 2009

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

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.

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Copenhagen is not the end, but the beginning

Posted December 18, 2009

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.

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Women speaking out on climate change

Posted December 18, 2009

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.

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Groups issue letter to Obama: Earn your Nobel Peace Prize

Posted December 18, 2009

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.

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