In Landmark Shift, New UN Work Programme to Address Agriculture Emissions Under Climate Action Framework

7 December 2017

International agencies and farm leaders have welcomed the decision to launch a work programme on climate and agriculture, which was endorsed by governments at the annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) three weeks ago in Bonn, Germany.

Language in the preamble to the UNFCCC’s 2015 Paris climate deal Agreement on climate change had previously acknowledged the importance of prioritising food security and ending hunger, as well as the “particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change.” Article 2b of the agreement also refers to the need to foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, “in a manner that does not threaten food production.”

The new work programme, which will be held under the UNFCCC’s two permanent subsidiary bodies, follows a series of five workshops held over the last four years, which many negotiators and environmentalists had hoped would prepare the ground for a more in-depth examination of the issues at stake. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 November 2017 and BioRes, 11 November 2013)

Whether to address agriculture under the UNFCCC has long been a contentious topic in the negotiations, even as the sector itself is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, while the impacts of climate change can have adverse impacts on farmers’ livelihoods and on food security.

Methane emissions from livestock are among the main contributors to agriculture’s overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions, along with certain rice production techniques, emissions from farm chemicals such as fertilisers, and emissions associated with transport and agriculture-related deforestation.

José Graziano da Silva, the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called the move a “major step” to address the impact of climate change on the poor and to meet growing demand for food.

"Climate change is already affecting agriculture and food security and it disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor, most of whom rely on the agricultural sectors for their livelihoods,” said the FAO chief in a 17 November statement.

Farm leaders and research groups also responded positively to the news. “Agriculture is firmly back on the agenda,” wrote Theo de Jager, a South African farmer who serves as President of the World Farmers’ Organisation, in a comment posted on the social media site Twitter. Separately, a statement from the global research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) hailed the move as a “momentous decision,” in an online article signed by seven representatives from the network. CCAFS is a collaborative initiative among the research centres that are part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The UNFCCC’s decision “opens the door to bold, transformative action to make farmers’ livelihoods and food supply more resilient, while mitigating climate change,” the signatories wrote.

UN climate negotiators told Bridges that they felt that significant progress had been achieved. “There was a substantive and meaningful decision for a new work programme until 2020,” said one official, in an email to Bridges. The agriculture accord was also heralded publicly by officials at the climate conference as one of the event’s major developments that could also have significant practical implications.

Six work areas

The work programme would include six main areas, the UNFCCC decision says, although it would have the potential to include others as well.

Under the first of these areas, officials will examine how to implement the outcomes of the five workshops on agricultural issues organised to date. Secondly, they will also examine methods and approaches for assessing adaption to climate change, resilience, and adaptation “co-benefits” – a term which could also cover efforts to mitigate climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In talks to date, many developing countries have emphasised the primary importance of ensuring that the agricultural sector can adapt to climate change, while developed countries have often preferred an approach focusing on both climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. The agreed language reflects a compromise form of wording that was able to achieve consensus.

Three further work areas concern specific aspects of farm systems. One focus area looks at improved soil carbon, soil health, and soil fertility in grassland, cropland, and integrated systems, as well as examining water management. Another focus area relates to improved nutrient use and manure management, and a third covers improved livestock management systems.

Finally, the work programme is also due to cover socio-economic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agricultural sector. This last area will potentially allow officials to examine issues associated with trade and markets, an area which historically has been a sensitive area in the climate talks. While trade is not a formal UNFCCC negotiating agenda item, it does also feature in discussions on key topics such as response measures and carbon markets.

The work programme will be pursued jointly under the two permanent UNFCCC subsidiary bodies, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), which meet both at the annual Conference of the Parties as well as at the mid-year climate talks.

The SBSTA and SBI will report on their work to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in November 2020, according to the decision.

Relationship with trade?

Analysts told Bridges that it was significant that parties to the UNFCCC had decided to include a discussion of the socio-economic and food security dimensions of climate change in the farm sector.

The move “potentially opens the door to considering a whole range of issues,” potentially including questions related to the relocation of production and to international trade, wrote David Blandford, Professor Emeritus of agricultural and environmental economics at Penn State University, in an email to Bridges.

However, one climate negotiator cautioned that trade issues had been controversial in the UNFCCC workshops on climate and agriculture to date, and that if these questions were to emerge under the work programme they could also derail progress.

Countries could raise trade aspects of the relationship between agriculture and climate change, another official said, but noted that this would be “a choice they will have to make depending on their views and proposals.”

Country-led approach

Because the design of the UNFCCC’s Paris agreement is structured around nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are countries’ individual climate action plans, some analysts say that global issues such as the relationship between food security and international trade can be pushed to the sidelines. According to the FAO, approximately 90 percent of these NDCs cover agriculture in some way.

Analysis in 2016 by the Centre for International Forestry Research, based on countries’ submissions to the UNFCCC’s scientific and technical body up until that point, argued that more holistic approaches to agriculture and climate change were needed.

One negotiator told Bridges that the UNFCCC’s “bottom up approach” needed to be complemented by technical experts from agencies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank, and from think tanks and other organisations providing a global vision of the issues around agriculture and climate change.

Next steps

UNFCCC member countries, as well as other interested bodies with observer status, will now make submissions on which topics should be treated under the work programme, officials said, which would then be discussed in May 2018 during the mid-year climate talks in Bonn. These submissions are due by the end of March.

“The pace of progress depends on the level of engagement of Parties,” said Carlos Fuller, a Caribbean climate negotiator who chaired the scientific and technical talks on agriculture until the UNFCCC meeting in Bonn this November.

ICTSD reporting.

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