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UNFCCC parties kick the agriculture can down the road to Doha

Demonstrators in the plenary at the UNFCCC climate change negotations in Bonn.

Used under creative commons license from adopt a negotiator

Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Bonn, Germany, for the past two weeks. On the rather full agenda for the meeting was an exchange of views on agriculture, mandated by a decision taken last year at the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa.

The exchange of views was preceded by a submission process, where parties and observers were invited to submit their views on what might be discussed during the exchange. Contained in the views were proposals for how the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) might address the sector.

From the first meeting, parties were divided on how the SBSTA should address agriculture. While all Parties agreed to a framework based on the SBSTA mandate on scientific and technological matters, there was a division on whether the emphasis of future work should be on adaptation or on both adaptation and mitigation. Developed-country parties in particular were emphatic that both adaptation and mitigation should be covered, and that identification of synergies between adaptation and mitigation was an essential element of future work.

For example, developed countries early in the second week floated a proposal that would have SBSTA consider:

a)   how to enhance the adaptation of agriculture to climate change impacts;
b)    how to improve the efficiency and productivity of agricultural systems in a sustainable manner;
c)    how to address synergies and trade-offs between adaptation and mitigation.

Developing countries, on the other hand, underscored the serious threats that climate change posed to their agricultural production and their economies that are heavily dependent on agriculture. For these countries, a focus on synergies could serve to dilute essential finance, capacity building and technology transfer that could be directed towards adaptation in the agriculture sector.

The G-77 rejected the developed country proposal, instead choosing to continue negotiations based on a suggested text offered by the chair of the SBSTA that prioritized adaptation. The central paragraph defined the scope of future work:


The SBSTA noted that there is a need for an assessment of the current state of scientific knowledge, as the first step, on how to enhance the adaptation of agriculture to climate change impacts as a priority, while promoting rural development, sustainability and productivity of agricultural systems and food security, particularly in developing countries. This should take into account the diversity of the agricultural systems, and the differences in scale, in particular experiences gained at local, national and regional levels.


In the end, however, it was bigger UNFCCC politics that ultimately defined the outcome of the Bonn negotiations, or lack thereof. Developing countries insisted to insert in the final decision an explicit reference to the convention principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” The principle is articulated in Article 3.1 of the convention:

The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

In the big picture context of global climate politics, developed countries are abandoning leadership and legal commitments to reduce emissions, shirking their own historical responsibilities for emissions that have led to a 0.74 °C rise in the 20th century. Instead of leading the way, those countries are pushing developing countries to take on emission reduction obligations in parallel with their own.

Developed countries have tried to reframe the mitigation discussion away from aggregate emissions towards “carbon intensity.” They argue that whilst their emissions keep rising, in fact their emissions per unit of product are decreasing. Large developing countries with strong agriculture sectors fear that developed countries are keen to develop and use carbon intensity standards as new means of anti-competitive protectionism.

Several countries within the G-77 and China group of countries were emphatic that the decision text should include explicit reference to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). Such a reference would point towards the need for developed countries to take the lead in reducing emissions in the agriculture sector. Not surprisingly, developed countries would not accept inclusion of CBDR in the text. The final outcome of Bonn simply deferred such decisions for future talks:

The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) initiated, in accordance with decision 2/CP.17, paragraph 75, an exchange of views on issues relating to agriculture and agreed to continue consideration of this agenda item at its thirty-seventh session.