This week, representatives of countries from around the world are convening in Paris to hash out an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst of climate change impacts to our environment.
‘COP 21’, the twenty-first United Nations climate change conference, has lofty goals to develop an international, legally binding agreement on climate. The conference has already taken on an historic significance; many experts claim a successful outcome in Paris is the world’s best and perhaps last chance to avoid locking in a catastrophic 2ºC rise in average global temperatures by the end of the century.
The 2015 Paris Climate Conference also comes at a time when the importance of agricultural climate solutions is more evident than ever before. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) celebrated 2015 as the ‘International Year of the Soils’. Agricultural management strategies that build soil carbon are increasingly recognized by researchers as a huge opportunity to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.
Civil society groups, most notably La Via Campesina, have raised the profile of agricultural stakeholders in the U.N. negotiations by staging huge rallies to highlight the climate vulnerability of small farmers around the world.
And some countries, including COP 21’s host, have begun to propose innovative approaches to untapping agricultural climate solutions as a way of meeting their climate commitments.
Despite all this, however, we are unlikely to see much concrete action on agriculture issues coming out of this COP. For one thing, the world’s soils – which store far more carbon than our forests and atmosphere combined – are not even on the official agenda.
But in the event that a landmark international agreement is reached, agriculture is well-poised to play a significant role in meeting the global GHG emission reduction targets.
At the 2014 U.N. Climate Summit in New York, the U.S. and about twenty other countries launched a controversial effort called the ‘Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture’, used to house additional discussions of climate and agriculture issues. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has an excellent blog about it, including some criticisms, here.
During last year’s climate conference in Lima, UN leadership established the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), which seeks to focus the work at COP 21 and build additional initiatives parallel to the negotiation of an emissions treaty. Agriculture is among the ‘thematic focus areas’ that are to be further explored under the LPAA. Although this does not necessarily ensure a place for agriculture-related commitments within the climate treaty negotiations, it seems like a step in the right direction.
Through these and other efforts, parties to the UN climate process have begun to grapple with the ‘high vulnerability’ of farmers around the world to climate impacts, particularly in the most vulnerable and food-insecure counties—even if resources to support their resiliency are still sorely lacking. Likewise, the importance of reducing agricultural emissions has been raised repeatedly, but these discussions have often been overshadowed by opportunities in other sectors and have generally lacked specificity.
France Takes the First Leap on Soil Carbon
Earlier this year, France’s agriculture minister proposed a visionary plan for his country to increase its soil carbon stocks by 0.4% annually. Although this goal may not sound very significant, he explained why it is:
“A relative increase of four parts per thousand per year in the stocks of soil organic matter would be enough to compensate for the sum of greenhouse gas emissions across the planet. On the other hand, a relative loss of four parts per thousand would double our emissions.”
France has not legally committed to this goal as of yet, and a number of questions as to the specifics of this effort remain. But that has not stopped the COP 21 host from joining with the U.N. to launch its 4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate, which intends to ensure “agriculture plays its part in combating climate change.”
On Monday, December 1st, the second day of the COP, over 100 partners (including some governments, NGOs, and businesses) committed to “protect and increase carbon stocks in soils” and to “reinforce their actions on appropriate soil management, recognizing the importance of soil health for the transition towards productive, highly resilient agriculture.”
The World Looks to California
With California’s pioneering climate change initiatives, it is no surprise that Governor Jerry Brown and a large state delegation are also in attendance in Paris.
California’s ambitious approach to setting GHG reduction goals, alongside its implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32), makes the state a model for many policymakers around the world. The Governor will surely be emphasizing California’s successes and encouraging world leaders to pursue a similar course of action. Governor Brown has been steadily working with other “subnationals” and countries to sign on to GHG reduction pledges.
Hopefully, the Governor will also take the time to emphasize California’s forward-looking climate and agriculture programs, as well as his own goal for California to “manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.”
Here are some highlights from the Governor’s efforts on climate change and agriculture:
The state’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) program is the first effort in the country – and possibly the world – to protect at risk farmlands from development to support carbon storage in soils and avoid GHG emissions related to urban development and transportation.
The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) makes the crucial connection between water use, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions by providing financial support for growers to adopt on-farm water management improvements.
Finally, the Healthy Soils Initiative, which may be funded in 2016, acknowledges the role agricultural soils can play in drawing down and storing carbon from the atmosphere. That program will incent growers to take actions that increase soil organic matter (SOM), reduce other greenhouse gas emissions and produce multiple other co-benefits like improved air and water quality.
Although there is still much work to be done here at home, the state with the largest agricultural economy in the U.S. can present a positive message to the world, emphasizing the many benefits that investing in agricultural climate solutions can bring.