I travelled to Bonn last week to participate in the latest round of climate change talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I have participated in dozens of UNFCCC negotiations and meetings since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations, when I first engaged as part of a Congressional Delegation of staff and members from the US Senate and House of Representatives. But I had been away for some time; this was my first UNFCCC meeting since the Cancun discussions were held in 2010 and it was a bit like old home week. I reconnected with many colleagues and friends and made many new acquaintances.
While the forum and the pace and logistics of the meeting was familiar—as were many participants—much has changed since last I participated. For one, the role of agriculture is now a high-profile topic of these meetings—a fact that has drawn me back to the table. Also, the high-profile Paris Agreement (agreed to in December 2015) has brought new life and a new approach to the important goal of combating global climate change, with all parties contributing per their abilities, capacities, and situations. The details of how the Paris Agreement will be implemented are being worked out in the Bonn meetings, which continue through the end of this week (before resuming in Bonn again in November 2017). And finally, the participation of the US in the Paris Agreement hangs in the balance while the current administration decides whether to remain in this critical forum. In the hallways, a much-discussed topic was that the US delegation in Bonn was the smallest to ever attend. However, US companies and NGO’s were participating, given the high stakes of these negotiations, and the fact that the rest of the world has resolved to continue this fight regardless of whether the US pulls out. This decision would disadvantage the agreement as well as the US public and private sectors. In or out, we must still all deal with the impacts of climate change that we are already experiencing. If we are out of the agreement, we cannot help to shape it, and we cannot take advantage of the global process and market-based measures that will make it more effective and more cost-effective.
No Path to 2 Degrees C Without Agriculture. A common theme of all sessions where agriculture was discussed—whether they were explicitly focused on agriculture or not (and many were)—was the fact that there is no path to preventing a global warming of 2 degrees Celsius without including agriculture. Agriculture is both part of the problem and a significant potential part of the solution. As greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy and transportation sectors continue to decrease, agricultural and land use emissions will account for a greater share of global and regional emissions. This fact trend has led to the new focus on agriculture and land use in the Agreement.
While in Bonn, I participated in a Technical Expert Meeting (TEM2017) on mitigation, focusing on cross-cutting issues in the urban environment and land use. The forum was jointly organized by the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). Agriculture was a high-profile and prominent theme of TEM2017, which involved 10 separate sessions over the course of the week, beginning with a session on public-private partnerships and ending with a closing plenary on Friday recapping the discussions and probing future activities of the group. Martin Frick of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) led many of the agriculture-focused aspects of the meetings, and discussed the role of agriculture in providing ecosystem services, sustainable development, and natural resource conservation while feeding the planet.
The role of agriculture was generally described under two broad GHG mitigation approaches: (1) improved resource use and efficiency; and (2) carbon pool storage and replenishment. In terms of soil carbon storage and sequestration, cautionary tales included the need to look at all GHG gases and to ensure that approaches are context-specific. Increased soil carbon in rice systems, for instance, can increase methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Alternatively, mid-season drainage and alternative wetting and drying systems applied to rice production and cultivation can increase rice production while reducing water use 30% and GHG emissions by 20 – 50%.
There was much agreement that there is no one-size fits all or silver bullet approaches for agriculture, and that agricultural mitigation should not be overshadowed by the need for agricultural adaptation to the increased vulnerabilities of climate change. However, I found that the desire by some to pit small-holder agriculture against larger scale agriculture to be misguided. There are many agricultural production systems in the world; let’s not pit big against small. Instead, I believe we should focus on bringing technology and information assistance to all agricultural producers, and on decoupling GHG emissions from production, keeping in mind that agricultural practices and systems are very context specific. We need diverse solutions for diverse contexts and diverse countries. Also, the drivers of action are varied and have multiple objectives, including GHG mitigation, climate change adaptation, food security and the alleviation of hunger, ecosystem services and natural resource conservation, for instance. These must be considered when planning policies, research, and developing innovations to address climate change. Finally, all approaches must be farmer-centric. If they do not work for farmers, they won’t work. And as important: the breadth of measures that contribute to GHG mitigation often also convey increased resilience and adaptation—GHG mitigation cannot be isolated from other global objectives.
Over the coming weeks I will continue to share observations from the many additional sessions that I attended while in Bonn. There is a great deal of overlap with our work here in the US, and while the implications for the role of carbon markets in the future of the Paris Agreement may not be resolved in the very near future, it will be important for C-AGG to continue to engage and to share our knowledge and experience in this area, ensuring that the US agricultural sector is well-represented in these discussions. We have a lot to contribute, a lot to share, and a lot to learn as we travel on this road together with our friends, colleagues, and partners from across the globe. And there remains a lot of work to be done.