Agriculture to feature as a key issue on the Road to Durban: opens up critical debates


Shefali Sharma blogged from Bonn, Germany climate talks. See her presentation from IATP's official side event for more.

As the UNFCCC negotiations came to a close Friday evening (June 17) in Bonn, the stage was set for a heated fight on agriculture as governments head to Durban for COP 17. South Africa, as well as the United States, have indicated that they would like to see agriculture as a “deliverable” in Durban.  

There are nonetheless numerous issues of contention to be resolved: what the defining focus of agriculture should be in the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA ) under the negotiating agenda “cross-sectoral approaches and Bonn  sector-specific actions” (linked to the Convention Article 4, para (c)[1]); whether parties will agree to launch an agriculture work program in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and when; if so, what the scope of prioritizing adaptation and food security would be; and what role carbon markets and agriculture offsets will play in emissions reductions and accounting loopholes.

Agriculture, a critical issue for the food security of the planet, food sovereignty of communities and governments, opens up a pandora’s box in the UNFCCC.  For instance, it could instigate a WTO fight in the UNFCCC since mitigation of emissions related to livestock (methane) and nitrous oxides (fertilizer) pit one country’s production processes against another’s. It also initiates a debate about the environmental integrity and economic feasibility of soil carbon accounting on agricultural lands and appropriate incentives for agroecological investment in the sector. In addition, soil carbon offsets to feed carbon markets would require the aggregation of thousands of hectares and thousands of farmers. Social and human rights impacts in developing countries and environmental and financial costs of devising monitoring reporting and verification (MRV) systems geared for carbon accounting and thus carbon offset credits must be vetted for their appropriateness.   

Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States will include agriculture in their Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). Both are also part of the 34-member Global Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases launched at the margins of Copenhagen when the agriculture text was first introduced in the LCA. Spearheaded by New Zealand, the United States, Canada and other developed countries, the alliance now “provides a framework for voluntary action” and has grown to include developing country members. It is composed of three research groups covering  croplands, paddy rice, and livestock, but also two cross-cutting issues: soil carbon and nitrogen cycling, and inventories and measurement.

According to a new study by the Stolkholm Environment Institute, Annex 1 countries accounting loopholes “more than” negate the emissions reduction pledges they have made to get us to a 2 degree goal of global warming.  The rise in emissions due to carbon accounting loopholes and their subsequent impact on food production and farming systems must therefore also be an integral part of discussion on agriculture and climate change.  

What happened in Bonn?

Agriculture first came in with a mitigation focus as  in draft decision “J” in the LCA text in Copenhagen under the umbrella of article “I.b.iv” of the Bali Action Plan referred to as “cross-sectoral approaches.”  Given the overloaded agenda of the UNFCCC negotiations, only a handful of countries have actively participated in agriculture discussions since the end of 2009—namely the agriculture export dominated “Umbrella Group” countries of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, but also Switzerland and the United States. From developing countries, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Philippines, Thailand, Bolivia have been active in the debate at different times.  Saudi Arabia also remains engaged on this issue given that oil and energy are critical elements of “cross-sectoral” mitigation actions. In Bonn, India and African countries also engaged on this issue. 

While the agriculture chapter was taken out of a final Cancún outcome, it emerged again in Bangkok this spring largely as an agenda fight: where best to put agriculture in the LCA. New Zealand and Canada proposed a direct SBSTA work program or a broader discussion in the LCA outside of 1.b.iv, while the G-77 insisted that the framework of the Bali Action Plan be adhered to and thus agriculture should remain under 1.b.iv. 

Much of the discussion in Bonn (see my other recent blog from Bonn), as in Bangkok, centered on an agenda fight—New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland lobbied that agriculture be directly included in the SBSTA agenda and a work program be launched. Failing its adoption in the Bonn SBSTA, they proposed that it be included as a SBSTA work program in SBSTA 36 (June 2012). They also pushed to address address agriculture within the LCA in “additional matters” rather than under “cross-sectoral approaches” so as to remove references to trade in previous agriculture drafts. In the end, the G-77 fought hard to keep agriculture under cross-sectoral approaches, where they felt a general framework for cross sectoral approaches needed to be developed balancing all sectors, including bunker fuels. New Zealand and others wanted to launch the work program and/or deal with agriculture outside of cross-sectoral approaches to avoid a trade discussion. They also asserted that they wanted to address both adaptation and mitigation regarding agriculture. 

In the end, agriculture did not enter the SBSTA agenda but remained in “cross sectoral approaches.”  Large parts of the new Bonn text remain unchanged from August 14, 2010 (pg 70), however new language was added by Brazil, India, Bolivia and Saudi Arabia, backed by other developing countries such as China and others. A struggle continues between developing and developed countries on the language around trade.

New language clearly stressed agriculture adaptation as the priority for discussion, followed by objections to carbon markets and mitigation offsets in developing countries (Bolivia):

Recognizing that adaptation for developing country Parties is the outmost priority and that market-based mechanisms, particularly offsets, for mitigation in the agriculture sector will not achieve the necessary emission reductions due to, inter alia, non-permanence, additionality and leakage.

Other new language stressed the importance of the sector to development priorities (Brazil):

[…] sector-specific actions in the agriculture sector should not limit the ability of developing country Parties to pursue economic and social development and poverty eradication, and, to that end, that it is essential that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific action in the agriculture sector are undertaken in a manner that is supportive of an open international economic system.

And in paragraph 4:

[Decides that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in the agriculture sector shall be based on the best available science, taking into account fully differences between agricultural systems regarding geographic, economic and social conditions and specific national development priorities and circumstances, in particular of developing country Parties, in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and in the light of the fact that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties.]

Unilateral trade measures on agriculture by developed countries was a primary concern to the G77 including India and Brazil. India proposed new specific language:

[…] developed country parties shall not impose unilaterally any technical regulations, sanitary and phytosanitary measures or market-based mechanisms on any grounds related to climate change, including stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations, emissions leakage and/or the cost of environment compliance, that will have a negative effect on trade in agriculture from developing countries.

In addition, new and critical linkages to agriculture mitigation, climate change and food price rises was also made by the net food importer, para. 3 ( Saudi Arabia):

[Decides that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in agriculture shall not lead to increases in the prices of agriculture products, and shall not threaten food security in any way]

Consensus in the run up to Durban or at Durban will likely be difficult. However, it is also clear that the World Bank wants to ramp up its engagement on agriculture by convincing African governments in particular, that agriculture could be a lucrative opportunity to attract carbon finance (see Guardian coverage of IATP research on the Bank’s Biocarbon project). With talk about “partnership,” “readiness” and “early action,” it appears that the World Bank and others would like to launch a similar process with agriculture as REDD. There seems to be a hope that, as in REDD, pilot projects can create a political momentum for carbon markets to include soil carbon. This is likely to be a tough sell to sound investors given the numerous difficulties the carbon market is facing today and with the carbon price crashing. 

Regardless, Annex 1 countries are heavily advocating for carbon markets and various associated financial instruments as “innovative sources” of carbon finance in an area of negotiations called “Various approaches […]” through which sectors such as agriculture can be included. A similar move continues in the LULUCF discussions with the draft text proposing to consider the expansion of the CDM to include “additional land use, land-use change and forestry activities.” The CDM currently only includes afforestation and reforestation activities and limits these LULUCF credits to 1 percent of total CDM credits. 

There was also a big fight on what the general framework on cross-sectoral approaches should be and on bunker fuel. This means that there are three simultaneous fights under the “cross-sectoral approaches" agenda—none of which are resolved. One option out of four proposed for a general framework says “approaches and actions shall be of a voluntary nature” while others make no mention of this. The fourth option proposes “no need for a general framework.”

Democratic deficit in discussions about agriculture and climate change

The Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, and umbrella platform of over 20 million farmers in Eastern Africa and PACJA, a network of 300 African civil society organizations issued a joint declaration on the eve of the Bonn talks regarding agriculture and climate change. Among other issues, they highlighted the democratic deficit of the UNFCCC discussions on agriculture, which to date, have completely ignored the perspective of small-scale producers and civil society organizations. The  Joint Declaration states:

[...] farmers organizations and other civil society organizations [must] play a central role in the design, implementation and review of all climate-related policies, including national adaptation plans of action (NAPAs) and nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) and in the formulation of all sectoral, national, regional and international policies affecting [their interests].

The declaration continues:

We express our concern over the handling of agriculture issues in the UNFCCC negotiations. Inadequate consultation has taken place at both the national and international level with farmers and other members of civil society. We are concerned with attempts to create new agendas to address agriculture in UNFCCCC subsidiary bodes as distracting attention from the urgent need for compensation and finance for adaptation and for measure to address loss and damage and response measures that undermine rural poor communities in developing countries, including perverse subsidies. We believe that discussions in the UNFCCC must be based on prior extensive consultation with rural communities if their rights and interests are to be protected.

They call for a development approach, centered on food security and rural livelihoods with full consultation on national, regional and global levels and one which includes a variety of organizations in addition to UNFCCC such as the FAO, UNEP and others.

Finally, as this debate picks up, the key body that coordinates all food agencies response to food security, the Committee on Food Security has also commissioned its high-level panel of experts to conduct a study on the impacts of climate change on food security and nutrition, including the challenges to adaptation and mitigation. The CFS’s leadership will be an important contribution to getting the right focus on climate and agriculture with food security at the center. Unlike the UNFCCC where civil society is increasingly excluded from the proceedings, the CFS allows all stakeholders to participate in its deliberations, making it a much more representative space to lead the discussions on agriculture and climate change. 

—Shefali Sharma 

Image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user benkamorvan.


[1] Parties shall “promote and cooperate in the development, diffusion, including  transfer, of technologies, practices and processes that control, reduce, or prevent anthropogenic emissions […] in all relevant sectors including the energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry,  and waste management.”