2017: Agriculture Begins to Tackle Its Role in Climate Change

After years of being off the table in climate talks, agriculture is now being considered widely by countries trying to reach their Paris emissions cuts pledges.

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Sheep graze in a dry field near the town of McFarland in California's Central Valley, August 24, 2016. The Central Valley is the state's agriculture hub producing vast quantities of fruits, vegetables, nuts as well as dairy, beef and lamb but struggled through five years of the last drought. Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Sheep graze in a dry field near the town of McFarland in California's Central Valley, August 24, 2016. The Central Valley is the state's agriculture hub producing vast quantities of fruits, vegetables, nuts as well as dairy, beef and lamb but struggled through five years of the last drought. Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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By allowing countries to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the landmark Paris climate agreement opened the door to new solutions. And over the past year, many countries, particularly in the developing world, decided that an especially effective way to reach those targets is through their farms.

Nearly 80 percent of the countries said they would use agricultural practices to curb climate change, and more than 90 percent said they would use those practices in addition to changes in forestry and land use linked to farming.

“2016 has been a very good year for agriculture and climate,” said Martin Frick, director of climate, energy and tenure at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “It’s become possible to finally discuss the elephant in the room.”

When climate negotiators gathered in Marrakech in November to begin mapping out the process for reaching the Paris goals, groups hosted at least 80 agriculture-focused sessions.

“Agriculture has really lagged,” said Craig Hanson, director of the food, forests and water program at the World Resources Institute. “Considering it contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 24 percent of net emissions with land-use change, it’s surprising it’s taken so long…But it’s finally happening,” he said.

In the U.S., the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, agriculture’s role in climate change has been discussed mostly by advocacy groups. And while the Department of Agriculture has launched programs to increase farmland’s capacity to capture carbon, those are voluntary. The U.S.’s plans for meeting the Paris goals rely mainly on energy and transportation.

When the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change launched its first global climate summit in 1992, agriculture hardly even entered the conversation. It wasn’t until about a decade ago that research began to show its contribution to global warming, with special attention paid to the ravages of deforestation for agriculture, especially palm oil.

“The numbers are pretty staggering. Maybe even a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the land—more than transportation—but that wasn’t clear until 10 years ago,” said Seth Shames, who leads policy research for EcoAgriculture Partners, a group focused on hunger, rural poverty and biodiversity. “Those issues started getting discussed in the climate change community. The forest people were able to get organized…and there was less political resistance in the climate world.”

In response, the UNFCCC launched a program that pays developing countries to preserve their carbon-absorbing forests, including standards for measuring, reporting and verifying the emissions cuts.

Similar standards haven’t been developed yet for agriculture.

“Right now, we don’t have mechanisms in place to really capitalize on the benefits that agriculture mitigation strategies can provide,” said Ernie Shea, president of Solutions From The Land, a collaboration of agricultural industry and conservation groups. “Forestry’s much further ahead on measuring impacts. We’re not there yet with agriculture.”

The conversation around agriculture’s role in climate change stems from a sea change in negotiations themselves. In 2009, the climate summit in Copenhagen fell apart, largely, some believe, because countries bristled at the top-down approach that dictated what countries must do.

After Copenhagen, negotiators began working instead on a pledge-based approach.

“The Paris agreement doesn’t impose anything on member states, and turns it around and says: What can you bring to the table?” Frick explained. “This fundamental change in logic has had a tremendous impact for agriculture. Agriculture, for every single country, is one of the most sensitive areas—it’s an emotional topic.”

Ultimately, agriculture emerged as ripe for action. It is existentially linked to a country’s very survival and increasingly under threat from weather extremes, drought and floods. Agriculture, in other words, has to adapt to climate change, but also has a huge, unrealized potential to mitigate climate change. That can happen through farm practices like soil carbon sequestration through cover cropping, or by making existing farmland more productive and efficient.

“Drought impacts, flooding, higher nighttime temperatures affecting pollination, new weeds, invasive species. There’s an awareness in the agriculture community that we’re at risk and we’re not as resilient as we need to be,” Shea said.

That risk is driving the discussion. Farm industry leaders and academics formed the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance in 2015 to prompt changes in agricultural practices that have climate benefits. Shea says the alliance’s approach, much like the approach at the international level, is to promote the idea that certain production techniques are not only better for the environment, but also for farm productivity. The alliance’s members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, which continues to deny the scientific consensus on climate change.

“People are turned off by the climate change conversation,” Shea said. “Once you get into a conversation about improving productivity, you can get into a conversation about co-benefits.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector in developed countries average about 12 percent, compared to 35 percent in developing countries, which makes agriculture a relatively less important solution in industrialized countries. Still, advocates are pushing agricultural interests and regulators in the U.S. to do their part, pointing to research that says reaching the goals of the Paris agreement will be impossible without agriculture’s contribution.

Educating farmers about the benefits—and using them to meet Paris targets—could provide the best way forward.

“There’s a lot of fatigue with the negativity on climate change,” said Thomas Driscoll, policy director at the National Farmers Union, the U.S.’s second largest farm group. “Agriculture and climate change is exciting because there’s a lot that can be done. Doing the right thing for the climate can save farmers money.”

But challenges lie ahead. In both developing and advanced countries, many farmers can’t afford to take climate-targeted steps—such as letting land lie fallow to regenerate—unless governments provide meaningful financial incentives.

In the plans that many countries submitted to reach their climate pledges, actual details around agriculture are scarce. And only one country—Rwanda—included plans to address food waste, which contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Homing in on those details and the precise strategies for cutting emissions is the work of the coming global talks.

“The next five years is going to be period where we, as a community—researchers, agronomists, NGOs—are going to start thinking about what we can do, the bundle of things we can do in agriculture,” Hanson said. “We’re on the agenda. Now we have to roll up our sleeves.”

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