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FEATURE: Three new ideas to help agriculture take centre stage in climate negotiations


Natasha Grist of Overseas Development Institute outlines the big ideas that could raise the profile of agriculture in the United Nations climate talks this month. This article first appeared on the Future Agricultures blog

It’s unclear exactly why it took so long, but agriculture was only recently brought in as a latecomer to the climate change table at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC).

Since then, it’s struggled to gain the voice it deserves. Agriculture is still a poor relation to more powerful interest groups within climate change talks, such as those engaged with reduced forest degradation and related carbon emissions reduction plus the conservation of forest carbon stocks (REDD+). All sorts of political and institutional reasons might be behind agriculture’s late arrival, while political — and not particularly rational — reasons saw agriculture continue to be marginalised in climate change negotiations.

Since 2009, however, concerted efforts have been made to raise agriculture’s profile within climate change debates — and for good reason.

Climate change, above all increased climate variability, threatens the economies of the poorest countries and the livelihoods (and indeed the lives themselves) of the poorest people. Agriculture is the mainstay of most of the world’s poorest, and is both a victim and villain in respect of climate change. The facts are stark and persuasive.

Now, three new ways to frame the topic, well-articulated by institutions like the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security programme (CCAFS), are now helping to bring agriculture into centre stage where it belongs.

3 new framings for climate change and agriculture

‘Triple wins’: First, agricultural programmes promise ‘triple wins’, where adaptation to climate change, mitigation benefits and increased food security may result from one initiative — making them attractive candidates for development as well as carbon reduction funding.  Conservation agriculture, for example, with its low tillage practices and better use of organic farm residues, can support all three goals.

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network has supported several projects (pdf, 3.5 MB) providing insights into triple wins; but it is clear that this ideal is tricky to realise consistently. Yet, as IFAD’s Elwyn Grainger-Jones points out, many initiatives will make positive impacts beyond the sector they are designed to address. For example, better crop management systems, new crop varieties or agroforestry techniques may be originally adopted to help with adaptation or development, but they may turn out also to help mitigate emissions: such projects can be reframed as triple wins ‘after the fact’.

Research continues at a granular level in CCAFS, CDKN and other institutions on how to measure carbon emissions and storage from different crops and livestock; how sustainable adaptation and mitigation efforts can be measured; and what frameworks for climate finance could function from their national and international investors or donors right down to farm level. But there’s still not enough to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together just yet.

The water/energy/food nexus: The concept of a ‘nexus’ of water, energy and food has been around for a while, but started gaining much more traction about 2 years ago. Focussing on actual and potential interconnections between these areas, it has led to analyses of potential synergies and trade-offs among different land uses such as biofuels, export and subsistence crops. Nexus thinking draws sector specialists out of their silos to reflect on broader impacts and to plan for future food security.

The ‘Landscape Approach’: In the last couple of years, the Landscape Approach has really broken into mainstream global narratives through support from the FAO, the World Agroforestry Centre, the World Bank and Ecoagriculture amongst others. A relative of watershed management, it looks holistically at managing land, water and forest resources for food security and inclusive green growth across the landscape. Climate adaptation and mitigation projects show the value of this geographical approach, which emphasises the importance of local context to generate successful and sustainable changes to farming and land use.

Disaster risk specialists join the debate

Could these ideas make international negotiations like COP19 wake up to agriculture? They are certainly powerful, but there’s something else going on as well. The prospect of huge and sudden impacts on whole regions has brought a whole new set of people to the table on agriculture: namely, the disaster risk management community.

These actors include experts in weather risk-management, long term scenario-planning, simulations and games playing as training tools, such as those at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. They have recently been working with the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance in agricultural communities in Africa to train youth and district planning officials in long-term decision-making in the face of uncertainty and disaster through participatory game playing. Local participants transmit a sense of urgency from the front line of emergencies as disasters — including extreme weather — strike hard at people, their livelihoods and their food.

Prospects for COP19 in Warsaw

So what is happening at this year’s UNFCCC? While a rather despondent note hangs over the conference as a whole, including big — and rather depressing — questions about impacts of fossil fuel subsidies, some very positive moves for agriculture have arisen from the Bonn talks earlier this year.

Adaptation in agriculture has finally caught the attention of the scientific and technical advisory groups. Adaptation to climate change that promotes rural development and productivity of agricultural systems will rise up the agenda.

This weekend will also see activities in Warsaw on 16–17 November as part of the Global Landscapes Forum. These events will consider climate smart agriculture’s synergies and trade-offs, how to make the landscape approach work scientifically and institutionally, and the ways that such efforts might be financed.

Meanwhile, innovative approaches to climate-smart development will be demonstrated through hands-on learning at the Development and Climate Days, also this weekend.

New framings that build alliances across forestry, agriculture and water and experiences of research and policy are not enough. The urgency of disasters that undermine food and water security brings a hot spice to this mix that cannot be ignored. Combined with better tools and soft skills to inspire cooperation and dialogue, the better to influence policy making and financial negotiations, we have the best chance of moving towards sustainable agricultural futures that we’ve seen for many years.

Further Resources

The author would like to thank Steve Wiggins (ODI) and Mairi Dupar (CDKN) for helpful review comments.

We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.

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