With COP27 fast approaching, and recent reports from the UNEP and the WMO warning that the world is not on track to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the time for real, transformative change is now. In this episode, hear from IATP Executive Director Sophia Murphy and Director of IATP Europe Shefali Sharma, both of whom will be traveling to Egypt for this year's COP, on the role of civil society groups at COP and the false solutions for climate and agriculture that IATP is working to discredit.
At COP27, Shefali will be speaking on two panels which will be livestreamed for remote audiences:
We don't do this work 'cause we think nothing is going to change. We do this work 'cause we feel like, damn it, we can change things.
00:00:08 Lilly Richard
This is the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s podcast Uprooted with a limited four part series: Talking COP27.
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. I'm Lilly Richard and over the course of this series, I'm speaking with some of the policy experts at IATP about the nexus of climate and agriculture and the upcoming UN Climate Conference COP 27. In our first two episodes we talked about the ways that industrial agriculture is driving climate change, how agroecology can be both an adaptation and mitigation strategy for creating resilient food systems on a heating planet and about the COP itself, and why it's such a difficult arena for advancing transformative solution – or in some cases making any progress at all. In this episode, we'll get into the role of civil society groups like IATP at the COP. A large part of that role is accountability: calling out false solutions and advancing true ones, making connections between systemic issues and demanding climate justice. And a lot of that goes beyond the COP. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, the COP is a global platform for drawing attention to the reality of the climate crisis, and the actions we need to take at every level to deal with it.
This year's conference, which starts on Sunday, November 6th and runs through November 18th, is taking place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The location is significant for a couple of reasons. One, because Egypt is in Africa, a continent that's already experiencing catastrophic climate impacts like deadly heatwaves and droughts that are impacting farmers ability to grow food. And two, because Egypt repressive government has limited opportunities for protest and civic engagement at the conference, especially for Egyptian citizens themselves. I talked to IATP’s Executive Director Sophia Murphy, who's going to be traveling to Egypt for this year's COP.
00:02:15 Sophia Murphy
It's important to note that Egypt is not a society or government that allows protests; that many, many Egyptian civil society organizations will not come. Some won't be allowed; some will choose not to because they don't wish to support their government in this role. And all of us going need to be very mindful of that. But I still think that it's important to bear witness and it's all of our governments there, and so it's important for all of us to be there saying “we're watching you, our governments.” It's not just Egypt, but everyone, and in that context it's perhaps also a chance to say, this is what civil society looks like, because there will be in some ways more freedom in that odd space that Sharm el-Sheikh is, that little sort of walled city in the desert, than is currently the norm for Egypt as a whole. So I expect that the atmosphere will be a bit muted. There won't be a big protest. That's not something that is part of the current political climate in Egypt. But I think there'll be plenty of robust criticism which is part of the role civil society plays that's just very important. You know, COP 27. There's been a lot of these. They cost a lot of money. It's difficult to get to COPs and it's very hard to see an influence there. For many many, many organizations you don't even get close to what those negotiations are, and the negotiations are deeply frustrated. So why go? Well, I think hugely important for us to bear witness, and I think people like Greta Thunberg have really hammered home that we are watching you and what you do matters. And this isn't just some argument about punctuation and a document. This is really about whether or not we have a planet to leave to our children and our grandchildren. So I think there's been a kind of conscience manifest in the civil society there.
IATP has been attending the cop for over 20 years, working to draw attention to the vulnerability of industrial export-focused food and agriculture systems on a warming and destabilized planet as well as calling out major polluters in the agribusiness sector whose emissions have escaped scrutiny and regulation. As the intersections between climate and agriculture have gained more attention over the past few years, we've also worked to call out the false solutions that have been put forward as possible climate fixes: things that reinforce the industrial agriculture system without making a real dent in emissions. This year a lot of the COP negotiations will focus on implementation; that is, we've got all these commitments to cut emissions. Now how are we going to meet them? And the “how” really matters. We can't waste our time and resources on false climate solutions because we don't have any time left to waste. Here's IATP Europe Director Shefali Sharma, who's been to multiple COPs and will be at COP 27 this year as well.
There's a lot of conversations happening, and food systems and food is starting to get more attention, if not in the actual negotiating halls then in the pavilions that take place in the hallways of the COP conference. And agribusiness, is there, right? So we want to be presenting our own visions and our alternative voice. And sharing the great deal of research that we have done on the meat and dairy corporations, the industrial animal ag sectors emissions. We will be coming out with a report on the methane emissions of the major meat and dairy companies. You know, methane is a big and urgent problem because we realize, while it's short lived, it's way more potent. And the livestock sector is one of the biggest methane emitters. And I mean I think we have to be really careful here. It's not people who have animals as part of their farming systems that we have a problem with. It is this whole system of mass industrial factory farm production of animals and we need to shift out of that. We need to, you know, create a just transition for farmers that are kind of trapped in this thing. What are those choices and solutions we can offer that create a much healthier way of raising animals that you know protects planetary boundaries? That increases biodiversity, that increases quality of life and pays farmers better?So we hope to have a chance to be on panels to talk about our analysis, our research, our perspectives. Because there are, you know, literally thousands and thousands of government officials and organizations that are there.
Shefali is talking about some of the work IATP is engaged with on methane, spotlighting the total methane emissions of giant international livestock corporations and pushing back against attempts to greenwash those emissions. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year timespan than carbon dioxide, but it doesn't last as long in the atmosphere, dissipating in about 9 years, while CO2 can remain for up to 1000. This means that cutting methane emissions in the short term will do a lot to slow global heating, and quickly – but allowing methane emissions to increase means that heating will accelerate even more. The World Meteorological Organization's recent Greenhouse Gas Bulletin found that we're going in the exact wrong direction, with methane concentrations increasing by the biggest percentage since systemic measurements began almost 40 years ago. And livestock, especially cattle, are a major source of that methane. The problem is the industrial system is simply producing too many cows, and too much manure. More than we actually need to meet the dietary needs of the global population, and more than the planet can handle. Agribusiness response to this problem has focused on reducing the emissions intensity of each animal with things like adjusting diets or capturing some of the methane generated by factory farm manure lagoons and converting it to “biogas” (or factory farm gas) that can be burned for energy. But this only reduces the per-animal emissions slightly, and if livestock companies continue to expand production which they intend to do, then total emissions will continue to rise, along with the other environmental and social harms associated with factory farming. Like manure lagoons.
What I really feel needs to happen is like an emergency climate session, right? Which is like, OK all our models that we predicted are actually underestimating stuff. The things that we thought weren't going to happen for 50 years are happening now. What's happening is that our models have heavily underestimated all the impacts, and we're seeing that so clearly with the floods in Pakistan, the droughts in Europe, the fires and the droughts in the US – like, it's everywhere. You know, like we need to be like, OK? Scrap this kind of talk shop. We need some serious action. What are we going to do? I mean there are some key concrete goals, right? One is that as net zero becomes such a big common jargon, we really have to kind of double down on the idea that actually what the climate demands, what Food and Agriculture demand is getting as close to real zero as possible, right? It's about emissions reductions. It is not about all the smoke and mirror stuff that kind of disguises our emissions, where we can, as a polluter, I can go buy credits from somewhere else. Or other kinds of technical fixes for the industry; for instance, biogas digesters. It's these kinds of things that we need to expose, and those are the conversations I hope that we’ll be having at the COP and on these panels talking about what real solutions for agriculture are. What is the real systemic transition we want to see towards agroecology? What does that actually entail?
Another false solution IATP has worked to draw attention to is the preponderance of carbon offset or emissions offset credits and so-called net zero goals and claims. The idea behind Net zero is that, as a planet or as countries we have a certain carbon budget we need to stay within to avoid the most catastrophic global warming, above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since we've already used up almost all of our planetary carbon budget, that means we need to get emissions as close to zero as possible, as quickly as possible. But theoretically for every ton of CO2 we continue to release into the atmosphere, we could remove or prevent the release of an equivalent amount, so that technically it would net out to zero additional emissions. If that math sounds a little funny to you, it's because it is.
As part of government run or private voluntary carbon markets, polluters can pay for emissions reduction projects elsewhere and receive credits for offsetting or cancelling out their own emissions. But the vast majority of these offsets are emissions reduction or avoidance credits, not carbon removals. Which means businesses are paying to take credit for emissions reductions elsewhere without actually reducing their own. So the net total continues to increase. Even worse, many of the projects claiming to prevent emissions have been found to be fraudulent, which has prompted action to set guidelines for better verification and regulation of carbon markets at this year's COP. And some of the projects that count towards emission reduction credits are things like biogas digesters, that incentivize factory farming, and ultimately increase pollution. And the offset credits that actually claim to remove emissions? Well, removing carbon from the atmosphere and permanently sequestering it is a lot harder than releasing it. Techno fixes like direct air capture don't actually exist at anywhere near the scale needed to cancel out our continuing industrial emissions, and there are concerns about the transport and storage of the carbon captured. Then there are so-called nature based solutions, like planting trees or adjusting agricultural practices to sequester carbon in the soil. On their own, these are good things, but attaching them to carbon markets doesn't make sense.
Plants naturally pull carbon dioxide out of the air and can push the carbon deep into the soil through their roots, but it's not a super stable or permanent state. Carbon cycles through all living things and when plants are harvested and soil is tilled, or when wildfires burn down a forest, that carbon gets re-released into the atmosphere. So the idea that agricultural land can become a stable carbon sink for all those rising emissions, or that companies could pay for an agricultural carbon offset that actually cancels out their emissions, doesn't add up. Here's Sophia again.
Yeah, there are several issues. One is of course there are forms of agriculture that are better at sequestering carbon. Those are great forms of agriculture. They're harder to practice than you might think, and they're much more place-reliant than a lot of the offset plans proposed by corporations would imply, so it's hard to monitor. It's not always stable. It's also just quite hard to do because it has to be really quite deep in the soil. The carbon that you might sequester in the first inches of soil is much less stable. So you have those challenges. Then you you have a lot of scope on a farm to be doing better practices, but you don't really have enough capacity to sequester carbon to cope with the massive amounts of emissions that we're talking about. And then allowing trading and all this. So then allowing people to come in and just make money swapping without much interest – I mean honestly, a lot of these are voluntary and there's no incentive for anyone to look too closely at what is being bought and sold.
The annual climate COP isn't the only forum for addressing the environmental and social crises we're facing on a global scale. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which works to end world hunger, includes sustainability in its goals and has acknowledged agroecology as a strategy for building food system resilience. And there's another UN conference of parties coming up in December in Montreal: the Biodiversity COP. All of these issues are interconnected, and countries may set goals or make commitments in one forum that has effects in the others. One of the roles of civil society groups is to bridge these gaps and try to overcome the siloing process that makes it hard to manage interrelated systemic issues. While there's a strong focus on greenhouse gas emissions at the COP, you can't actually separate climate from things like biodiversity and ecological resilience because those are the things that actually allow our planet to sustain life.
Another really crucial role that civil society plays is that communication piece. Because often you, of course, you have different diplomats go to these different spaces. Some governments coordinate better than others, but you don't get the same people sitting in the seat and deciding all these things. And civil society often will have either the same or – within a much smaller organization, you know—two, three, four people who will go to the COP 27, but they'll also go to COP 15 for the biodiversity talks. They'll be in Rome at the Food Security Committee, they'll be in different places and spaces. So the NGOs form a kind of international monitoring system that is able to carry coherence from one place to another. So there's a kind of holding to accounts and information and cross-fertilization role that's really important. One of the other things, and that leads to some of the other work IATP is doing, is that if you start to look at net zero, you risk – and you talk about offsets – you risk distilling all the changes needed in this system to one simple, not so simple, but basically one equation. And actually we need multiple equations. And that's where the newness of agriculture to the climate talks, I think, is still – that the complexity of agriculture is not as well communicated or understood as it might be.
There's this idea called doughnut economics that Kate Raworth and others have propounded, where you're looking at planetary boundaries. This is an idea from ecology that we've only so much we can absorb – even renewable resources have limits – but there's also a floor. And we want everyone to have enough to eat. We want everyone to be, you know, to live a life in dignity. But the contribution we can bring on the food and agriculture side is really, I think to say in a complex system, the climate will benefit when we do other things as well. For biodiversity for water management, for soil health protection, and these outcomes will mitigate our emissions. They will also, importantly, protect adaptive capacity. And that although it's harder, it's actually much better investment to fix on that and not to have one metric. And I think that's our biggest risk going into a COP and not going to one of these other forums. Of course, climate change is all about systems in one sense, but it has proven to be quite reductionist in the way it looks at other sectors, and says, well, this is what you need to do for climate. IATP is challenging that.
Sometimes the false solutions being promoted at the COP and at the national policy level are hard to spot. Initiatives like AIM for climate and so-called climate smart agriculture include some positive steps like encouraging cover cropping and reduced tillage. But they also support problematic approaches like biogas and agricultural carbon markets, and most importantly, they reinforced the power of agribusiness and the focus on increased production rather than adapting and right-sizing a food system to meet the needs of farmers, the environment and the communities they feed. It's important to look closely at these proposals that might sound good on the surface, and analyze exactly who benefits from them and who's left vulnerable.
So IATP has been and is a big proponent of agroecology. And we understand it as an approach as a philosophy to how to think about food systems, not just the production of food, but all the way through the system to the final consumer. And that agroecology prioritizes democracy, meaning engagement of people affected by the food system in decisions over that food systems – that's where it touches on food sovereignty. But it is this idea that people should have some control and some say over their food system. And I think that's probably, you know, there are many aspects to agroecology. I think this piece on democracy is one of the ones that separates agroecology from say “climate smart” agriculture. Agroecology is about modern science and traditional knowledge and looking for ways to bring the best of those worlds together with practitioners. And the climate smart, I mean, of course no one wants climate dumb agriculture, but the climate smart part tends to be a technical fix. It you know, there's a kind of box to tick whether or not it's doing something about greenhouse gas emissions, and it's missing all these other things. A climate smart solution also needs to be biodiversity smart and soil smart and water smart, and, we would say, rural community smart. And so it's that risk of distilling down into one thing instead of expanding out into the systems understanding that I think is the fundamental difference. So there are many great ideas under the label climate smart, but for IATP it's really important that we consciously embrace the larger system that we're trying to transform. And too often climate smart will dodge that, or sidestep that difficulty.
So we know some of the goals for this year's COP, but we also know about the challenges of the forum. With the recent news from the United Nations Environmental Programme that countries’ current commitments don't put us on track to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming, there's never been a more urgent moment to move towards transformative solutions. The COP is just one site for advocating for real climate action, but it's an important one. Here's Shefali again.
I think it matters. I think the fact that civil society has a seat at the table with other governments. That's something really important and not to be dismissed. And I think that there are a lot of groups who are specifically then lobbying to see that the final text that's agreed has certain words in it that are really important, that give civil society groups and the grassroots communities that are on the ground more space to fight for their cause, to make sure that nothing at the international level undermines those movements. But yeah, I mean, but there is a huge divide between that level at the COP and discussing agriculture versus what you know, grassroots communities or food and farm movements are facing on the ground. There's a huge disconnect, for sure. For us, as IATP is a relatively small NGO, our role really is to inform the groups that are there with our analysis of where we see emissions are what kind of systems change that needs to take place, making sure that the joint positions that we develop are informed from a food systems perspective and not just a narrow kind of you know, “OK, this it's climate change, so we got to deal with this greenhouse gas” lens. Versus what is really needed to shift agricultural policy and climate policy in a way that creates a real transition right for the planet, but also for the growers, for the producers that are out there. It's also clear the real price of action is going to be at the country level and at the bottom-up level, right? Because that's where you're going to push your country, your government into having the most ambitious climate target, and the right path to that. So when it comes to agriculture, you know are food and farm movements in the United States involved in those discussions on agriculture and climate? And how does that then translate as a mandate for the US government? And you know, same thing with India. Same thing with the the EU. The hope is that there's enough of a push at the local/regional/national level on the right policy mix that then doesn't get undermined in the climate change negotiation. You never know. We don't do this work 'cause we think nothing is going to change. We do this work 'cause we feel like, damn it, we can change things.
Next week we'll be taking a short hiatus as Sophia and Shefali travel to the COP itself. Stay tuned for updates from on the ground in Egypt and our final episode after the conference concludes, where we'll follow up on what was accomplished, what wasn't, and where we need to turn our attention after COP 27.
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