Think Forward blog

"Big River" Nets Big Donation for Mississippi River Gorge Stewards Program

Posted December 15, 2009

IATP staffers (from left) Abby Rogosheske, Julia Olmstead, and Mark Muller proudly handed over $2000 in proceedsBig River check to FMR 12309 (2) from the "Big River" movie premiere to the Friends of the Mississippi River's Gorge Stewards Program. FMR and IATP partnered with the Birchwood Cafe and Land Stewardship Project to bring Curt Ellis (of movie "King Corn" fame) and his new documentary "Big River" to the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis last month. Ticket sales from the near-capacity crowd generated a big donation to the Mississippi River Gorge Stewards Program. This program brings neighbors
and committed citizens from throughout the metro area together to protect and restore the Mississippi River Gorge, the very unique river ecosystem that stretches from downtown Minneapolis to Crosby Farm Nature Area in Saint Paul. We are all grateful to everyone who supported both the movie premiere and this important river program. Thank you!

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The waiting game in Copenhagen

Posted December 15, 2009

In this information age, most of us just want the bottom line from our news. We read the headlines, skim some paragraphs, check out the graphics—information in short, efficient bursts. But if the climate talks fall apart, it will be important to understand how and why they weren't successful. And part of that story needs to include the poor planning by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

They booked the Bella Center in Copenhagen to host the talks, which has a capacity of 15,000. Amazingly, they then allowed 45,000 people from around the world to register, according to the New York Times. This doesn't include country delegations. So, much of yesterday was spent waiting in lines—and if you were lucky like me, you got into the Bella Center. Several IATP staff waited six hours in the cold and never got in. They weren't alone, there were country delegates, climatologists and many others who were forced to miss or cancel meetings yesterday.

The overbooking is wreaking all kinds of havoc this week. The UNFCCC is now severely limiting the number of accredited observers into the Bella Center today and tomorrow. Then Thursday, only 1,000 will be allowed in. Finally, on Friday, when President Obama and other heads of state arrive, they will only allow 90. Many organizations and governments had organized side events to take place on Thursday and Friday. As of now, they will be canceled.

Negotiating a new global climate deal within today's international context—as countries like the U.S., EU, China jockey for power—is incredibly challenging under ideal conditions on the ground. The UNFCCC, while having good intentions on inclusiveness, has made the hill to climb even steeper.

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Eyeless in Copenhagen

Posted December 15, 2009

We have been told, by more than one speaker of very different viewpoints about climate change, that nothing less than the future of the planet will be negotiated in Copenhagen. Expectations had been lowered by the assurance that no legally binding agreement would result from the negotiations. Instead, President Barack Obama announced there would be a “political agreement,” that would frame the terms of a legally binding agreement to be finalized next year in Mexico City. But the “Danish text,” leaked to The Guardian, provoked such outrage among developing countries that it has been withdrawn, at least procedurally, as a basis for any discussion towards negotiations. The negotiations were suspended today, December 14, but then renewed. The Climate Action Network reportedly "awarded" the United States its first "Fossil Award" for bad behavior after it announced that it would never sign the Kyoto Protocol that would bind it to a greenhouse gas reduction mandate. Instead the U.S. will attempt to make a global carbon emissions market the primary means to allow it to meet GHG-reduction targets. Such a market includes the buying of carbon offset credits at a cheap price in developing countries.

More officials have arrived to negotiate and NGOs have arrived to participate in side events in the gargantuan Bella Center, the site of the negotiations. The line of those waiting with letters of acceptance and passports in hand waited in vain for hours today. Those IATP staff who had managed to register before the “badge making machine had broken” (the security office explanation) called from inside the Bella Center to arrange meetings for what we hope will be a more logistically successful tomorrow. But right now rumors abound and we feel eyeless in Copenhagen, as far as the Bella Center is concerned.

But however frustrating the registration process, we have been able to learn and inform about what IATP is doing on climate change. From our participation in Agriculture and Rural Development Day (, we learned that much bigger institutions than IATP were surprised at the exclusion of agriculture, until now, in the negotiations. ARDD delivered the “messages” gathered from four Roundtable discussions, characterized by one speaker as “no agriculture, no deal.” Since the United States and the European Union plan to “reduce” more than half of their GHG emissions by buying much cheaper offset credits based on GHG reductions from agriculture and forestry practices, it is a little more than bizarre that agriculture has not had a working group in the negotiations.

Agriculture Day plenary speakers, including Kanayo Nwanze, the President of the International Foundation for Development, insisted that the more than two billion small land holding farmers affected by climate change would feel failure in Copenhagen in their stomachs before anybody else. In sub-Saharan African alone, 75-250 million people could be added to the total number of more than a billion food insecure peoples, as the natural resources for agriculture are damaged by climate change.

I participated in the round table on “Potential benefits of emissions trading for small [land] holder farmers.” What several speakers and participants conveyed was just how little was known about how to verify that offset projects reduced GHGs. Since carbon emissions trading had been sold to farmers as a solid income stream ($40 billion a year in offset sales by 2020, according to the World Bank), more than one of them was upset to find out that stringent verification would be required for their projects to be certified as having reduced GHGs. For example, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, the science on carbon sequestration (usually by returning emissions to the ground) is ambiguous as to whether GHGs are reduced. Managing livestock diets to reduce methane emissions is even more unproven. In light of the science based doubt about agricultural offsets, one participant suggested that agricultural practices, rather than results, be certified as the basis for offset credits in carbon trading. The suggestion was met with scientific disdain.  If the scientists are so unclear about the feasibility of basing emissions trading on verifying offset GHG reductions, the terms for doing so in the climate change negotiations will only be more contentious.

I had ten minutes in the “Ideas Marketplace” to summarize an IATP webinar on carbon trading and U.S. climate change legislation. The poster that I used, graduate student style, explained how the present terms of U.S. legislation could create extreme carbon price volatility that would impede not only the rate of investment return analysis to invest in a low carbon economy, but would exacerbate agricultural futures prices. When the $3 trillion carbon derivates market projected for 2020 is bundled into commodity index funds, the effect is likely to be similar to how oil future prices drove agricultural futures prices up and down in 2007-2008. Discussion was lively, so maybe we opened up the eyes of a few people who otherwise might have assumed that carbon markets would be an unqualified benefit for farmers. Tomorrow we’ll try to open a few more eyes on other agriculture and climate change topics.

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Complications in Copenhagen

Posted December 14, 2009

As the overall climate negotiations hit an impasse, so did discussions focusing specifically on agriculture. IATP's Anne Laure Constantin gives the latest news from Copenhagen:

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Agriculture walks the tightrope in Copenhagen

Posted December 14, 2009

At the massive global climate meeting taking place this week in Copenhagen, agriculture has played a largely secondary role. Negotiators seem most eager to put off the tough questions on agriculture until next year (see IATP's Anne Laure Constantin's report). But at a conference a short distance from the Bella Center (where the climate talks are taking place) agriculture was on everyone's lips. And the results were both encouraging and troubling.

Agriculture Day was organized by a host of international agriculture research, aid and farm organizations (see the list). The idea was to establish a consensus on how agriculture should be incorporated into the global climate talks.

There certainly was a consensus on a few things: 1) agriculture faces severe challenges due to climate change; 2) countries in the global south, particularly Africa, will be more severely affected; 3) there needs to be additional money (not simply shifting money) to help farmers, particularly small-scale farmers and women, adapt to climate change; 4) there needs to be more money for research and extension systems on adaptability and assessing mitigation efforts such as sequestration; 5) agriculture needs to be part of the solution to climate change; and finally, 6) the global food crisis and rural development issues are intricately linked. As the World Bank's Juergen Voegele said, "agriculture is where poverty reduction, food security and climate intersect."

Suppan2 But two big differences emerged that will largely define the debate on agriculture and climate change in the next year. One was whether a carbon market, with offsets for agriculture, would actually benefit farmers. Complications are certainly scientific (can we effectively measure practices that sequester carbon, and at differing scales of production?), but also economic (who will really make the money here? will it be speculators and the carbon aggregators buying and selling credits or farmers on the ground? See IATP's Steve Suppan presenting at Ag Day, right). Unfortunately, it seemed a lot of participants assumed that a cap-and-trade system was the best way to involve agriculture. IATP's Julia Olmstead outlines other options in her analysis of U.S. climate policy.

Gordon The second big difference had to do with the type of investments and priorities that should be made in agriculture within climate policy. There was an emphasis on new technology—primarily genetically engineered seeds and some for nanotechnology. "Traditional breeding is not going to be enough," said Gordon Conway, of Imperial College London and one of the leading proponents of the Green Revolution, (see left). This sentiment was pushed by nearly all the presenters—from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to Dr. Adel El-Beltagy of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) to representatives from CropLife and Bayer. The arguments were familiar: new GE crops will help farmers manage risk brought on by climate change (such as water and temperature variations and increased pests and weeds), and help mitigate climate change through a reduction in nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide use.

The other side of the coin was a call for more diverse cropping systems. There was a recognition that farmers need to become more adaptable—growing multiple crops with multiple varieties under changing conditions. Farming regions will be affected differently around the world so solutions need to be flexible and fit the need of each community (exactly the kind of diverse approach not suited for GE seeds). A speaker from Senegal echoed the findings of a recent global report that IATP contributed to emphasize the need to better utilize traditional knowledge to strengthen resilience and mitigate climate change. A representative from Nairobi talked about how our current systems have become too vulnerable to weather events—we have always had severe weather, but we are less able to adapt. Instead, we need to focus on resilience through diversity. Another researcher working in Africa emphasized the need to invest in roads, infrastructure and credit.

It is expected that over the next few days Copenhagen will create a plan for agriculture that will carry through next year. These two questions will be at the heart of the debate: Who will really benefit from how agriculture is treated within climate policy? And what type of agriculture will be promoted as a response?

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Agriculture text moving fast in Copenhagen

Posted December 13, 2009

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin has been following the agriculture negotiations at the global climate talks in Copenhagen. She gives a rundown of where the fast-moving agriculture talks are going in the video below.

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Climate, agriculture and water

Posted December 11, 2009

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that water will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Effects on water, whether flooding or drought, inevitably affect agriculture and food security; and of course agriculture, particularly heavily irrigated agriculture, affects both water and the climate. These interconnections are the subject of a new IATP issue brief by Shiney Varghese.

The paper looks at the critical importance of rain-fed crops on food security in developing countries around the world, and the role of industrial agriculture and its intensive water use on the environment. The paper calls for agriculture-based climate strategies to include water efficiency, ecosystem and socioeconomic impact assessments. In addition, climate proposals should support the Right to Food and the Right to Water for people to meet basic needs, prioritize water availability and support a host of sustainable water management tools including organic matter management, rainwater harvesting, small-scale water storage, community-based irrigation and water maintenance for grazers and small-holder livestock.

You can read the full issue brief here.

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US on the wrong track

Posted December 11, 2009

Long, long meeting this afternoon (Dec. 10) on sectoral language for agriculture. First of all, there is confusion as to what the text will end up being—part of a comprehensive Copenhagen agreement? A separate COP decision? Something else still? Everything seems pretty much up in the air on this topic as different countries hold very different views on this matter.

And then there is the U.S. position. Arguing that the language on agriculture needs to be short and very specific, and that it should avoid any mention of food security, or of linkages between mitigation and adaptation. Hard to believe. How does the U.S. government expect this to be acceptable to developing countries where agriculture is a source of livelihoods for large shares of their populations? And, more broadly, to all stakeholders involved in discussions about agriculture, food and climate change? It has become widely accepted that Copenhagen needs to open a space to deal with agriculture and food security concerns associated with climate change—the U.S. cannot be serious!

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Delicate balance—agriculture in global climate talks

Posted December 10, 2009

Given agriculture's unique role as both an emitter and mitigator of climate change, and its enormous contribution to land use patterns around the world, agriculture must be part of any global response to climate change. But agriculture's multifunctionality must not be lost within climate negotiations due to its essential role in providing enough healthy food for everyone; its impacts on water and biodiversity; and of course how it affects rural livelihoods around the world.

Throughout this year, agriculture has taken a more prominent role within the climate negotiations and has actually become part of the negotiating text, but many developing countries are concerned that climate negotiators have not devoted enough time or resources to consider the best way to deal with agriculture.

In a new issue brief, IATP's Anne Laure Constantin outlines a series of benchmarks for negotiators as they consider the role of agriculture within a global climate deal in Copenhagen. She emphasizes the need for a transparent and inclusive process to assess climate solutions against a broad set of metrics for impacts on food security, water and rural livelihoods. In addition, proposals need to prioritize socially and environmentally sustainable solutions that break away from high-input agricultural production and increase support for low-input, sustainable systems. Climate negotiations should not be used to expand trade interests and there needs to be a critical assessment of the role of carbon markets for agriculture. Read the full issue paper here.

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Attention to agriculture in Copenhagen

Posted December 10, 2009

I have finally set foot into Bella Center, where the UN Climate Conference (COP15) is taking place. I arrived here yesterday (Dec. 9). After a long queue to get a badge, I left my luggage and clothes in the huge cloakroom, walked through the endless exhibition hall and ended up bumping into two colleagues—pretty unlikely given how crowded the place is!

Everything here is quite overwhelming! The crowd, the venue, the number of official meetings and side-events...

And on agriculture? Well, since I've arrived 24 hours ago, I have already seen three different versions of the text on sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in agriculture, and there are a lot of brackets still left—so many more versions of the text can be expected in the next few days. Contentious issues include:

  • the consideration of food security in addressing agriculture's role in climate change mitigation,
  • the role of trade and performance standards,
  • the potential for increased efficiency and productivity of agriculture to help address agriculture's role in climate change mitigation.

One issue that does not seem to be discussed by official negotiators, but that I feel is problematic, is the  involvement of non-governmental stakeholders in the upcoming work program on agriculture. Currently, the text opens the door only to submissions by Parties of their views on the content and scope of the work programme. IATP feels the process should be open to observer organizations too.

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