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OPINION: The current climate of agriculture in the UNFCCC

For some years, attention has been building on the links between agriculture and climate change, with debates building momentum within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and outside. Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive of CDKN, was closely engaged in UNFCCC discussions on agriculture at the Cancun Conference of the Parties (CoP16) of the UNFCCC and served previously as the Chair of the Global Donor Platform on Rural Development.  Here, he reports on the history and future of agriculture in the UNFCCC, and highlights some of the key substantive issues in the debate.

Approaches to agriculture in the international climate change process

Historically, following the Bali Action Plan, agriculture was considered a sectoral approach under the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA; as opposed to the Kyoto Protocol).  At the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in Durban, South Africa, Parties agreed to make agriculture an agenda item in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA), moving it from the LCA discussions.  (For a full infographic timeline of agriculture in the process, see:

The significance of this move from LCA to SBSTA was that agriculture could be explored in a more politically neutral environment, by focusing on the scientific and technical aspects of the sector in relation to climate change.  However, there was another significant agreement at CoP17 , which has come into play: the creation of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).  A key feature of the ADP was that it would no longer distinguish between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) countries, meaning that theoretically all countries would be making future commitments to reduce emissions under the new climate deal to be reached in 2015.  While the ADP and SBSTA are two separate bodies (one being policy-oriented and the other being scientific and technically-oriented), this inclusive approach has had (unintended) consequences for how agriculture proceeds under SBSTA.

Where is agriculture going?

At CoP17 and CoP18, Parties stopped short of agreeing to create a work programme for agriculture, which would have initiated a series of Party-requested activities to further explore and exchange scientific and technical information on agriculture (e.g. technical workshops on priority topics, synthesis reports of country submissions on specific topics).  Without the decision for a work programme, Parties have continued discussions about whether to create a work programme and what the scope of a work programme would include.

Two of the major stumbling blocks on reaching agreement have been:

1)    Whether the work programme should be framed under one of the Convention’s principles of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).  The significance of including CBDR as a chapeau for framing agriculture under SBSTA is that it regresses back to the previous differentiated treatment of developed vs. developing countries by carving out agriculture as a sector that would not be treated equally for all Parties under the ADP (meaning that developed countries might have to make commitments in emissions reductions for agriculture, while developing countries may not); and

2)    What the scope of the work programme would include, the options being:

1)  Adaptation only;

2)  Adaptation and mitigation co-benefits;

3)  Adaptation and mitigation.

The counter-argument to the above framing options goes “let’s just agree to get started on a work programme and continue discussions over exactly what that would entail over the next few years.”  But many countries are understandably nervous about agreeing to a path if they do not have some clarity on where that path it leading them.   Could a work programme that does not uphold CBDR or includes both adaptation and mitigation be paving the way for developing country commitments to reduce emissions from agriculture?  Technically speaking, SBSTA is a scientific and technical body that does not make policy decisions and therefore its work would not lead to commitments.   However, undertaking scientific and technical work on adaptation and mitigation will ultimately help to inform future policy discussions under the ADP, which could lead for a push to reduce those emissions across all Parties.

Can these differences be overcome, and if so, how?

Of course, the answer depends on who you ask across the spectrum of Parties.  However, a couple of things have become clearer in the last few rounds of discussions and in surveying the growing suite of activities on agriculture and climate taking place outside of the UNFCCC.

First, in order to achieve a decision for a work programme, real compromise is needed.  At the moment, it seems that many, if not all, of the remaining challenges outlined above are politically oriented and therefore are unlikely to be resolved in SBSTA.  Second, countries and their farmers are already grappling with a changing climate.  Many are seeking science, technology and information that will help them both adapt to new conditions and also reduce agriculture’s contribution to the problem.  In response to these current- and near-term needs, many countries are already participating in bilateral, regional or global voluntary initiatives outside of the UNFCCC process.

Recognising these political challenges, as well as the need to share and utilise knowledge, the remaining question regarding the UNFCCC is: will Parties be interested and motivated enough by the need for science and technology to overcome their political differences and agree to create a programme of work in the UNFCCC?

Thus far, the answer to that question still remains unclear, and as in any multilateral process, there are many factors that may influence the outcome. However, given the current dynamics, a range of potential scenarios seem most likely to unfold, as illustrated in the figure below:


Many negotiators in the process remain optimistic about the ability to find a compromise between the different positions and cite a lack of dedicated time to focus on agriculture discussions as the major challenge preventing them from doing so thus far.  This coming June, Parties will discuss agriculture over the course of a two-week SBSTA session. This may provide enough time for effectively outlining and agreeing to compromise language that would be proposed in November at CoP19 in Warsaw, Poland.  Failing that, agriculture will remain an agenda item for SBSTA which allows for continued discussions.

Key issues for cross-regional exchange   

Irrespective of how agriculture is accommodated within the UNFCCC, the following issues remain central and are likely to only gain momentum as topics for research, identification of best practice and knowledge exchange:

  • Climate mitigation in the livestock sector: several countries are working intensely on measuring and reducing livestock emissions with a view to developing nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs).
  • Risk management and insurance schemes: several different approaches are being trialled to spread the risk for climate-related crop failures and livestock losses, such as the Mongolia index-based insurance scheme documented in the CDKN inside story.
  • Climate mitigation for the rice sector: techniques and crop varieties are being developed to reduce the methane emissions from rice paddies, and are attracting the attention of major rice producing countries.
  • Water management: the increasing incidence of drought and erratic rainfall in many regions is proving highly challenging to crop and livestock management – with consequences for agricultural productivity. Scientific understanding of effective adaptation practices, along with developments in crop varieties, are beginning to offer some solutions.

Lack of agreement on a work programme this year may further spur bilateral, regional or global efforts outside of the UNFCCC process that are designed to help farmers and countries adapt and mitigate in the near-term, without waiting for international direction or multilateral cooperation.   In this space, CDKN will continue to support developing country negotiators in the UNFCCC as well as a set of applied research projects at country level on agricultural adaptation and mitigation.

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