November 13, 2013

The UNEP Emissions Gap Report and Climate-Smart Agriculture: ICRAF COP19 Side Event

Warsaw Skyline, photo by Emily Spiegel

There is a definite role for agriculture to play in climate change mitigation, but still far too little information on the scale of its potential contribution. This was the overriding message from yesterday’s COP 19 side event Scaling up Climate Smart Agriculture: policies, development and mitigation potentials, hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

The speakers were responding to the 2013 UNEP Emissions Gap Report, released this month.  The Report, released annually by UNEP since 2010, examines the gap between worldwide pledged emissions reductions by 2020 and emissions reductions necessary to actually meet climate targets. Merlyn Van Voore, speaking for UNEP, described the Report’s objective as addressing a fundamental question in climate change negotiations—whether or not we, as a global community, are on track to keep climate change within a two degree range.

The short answer is no.

The UNEP report shows that even if all current emissions reduction pledges are met, the world is on track to produce 56 gigatons of emissions in 2020, whereas 44 gigatons would be a level commensurate with achieving climate targets.  With 12 gigatons of emissions to make up for, the event participants turned to a discussion of the role agriculture might play in reducing that gap.

Henry Neufeldt, head of climate change research at ICRAF, found that this essential question cannot yet be answered with any precision.  Although we can make some estimates of the direct and indirect emissions from the agricultural sector, the complex feedback loops between agriculture and climate change make predictions of agricultural emission-reduction potential tentative at best.

Arild Angelsen from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences approached the issue by trying to determine whether increasing yields on agricultural land tends to preserve forests or threaten them. He identified two competing theoretical narratives—that raising yields on existing cropland would reduce pressure to convert forests to agriculture, or that raising yields would increase incentives to convert more land to agriculture.  Empirical observations, he found, are inconclusive.  With many confounding factors influencing whether forest landscapes are preserved or cleared, Angelsen cautioned that it would be a mistake to assume that agricultural intensification will save forestland or that it will undermine it.

But while the evidence base may be insufficient to make numerical predictions of agriculture’s emissions-reducing potential, there is clearly a role for climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to play.  Discussion turned to policies to encourage CSA and thereby maximize the emissions benefits that agriculture can offer.

Panelists noted that several factors influence uptake of CSA practices at the farm level.  Neufeldt identified conditions that encourage smallholder farmers to adopt climate smart agricultural practices, including an enabling legal and policy environment, better access to knowledge and training, and more farmer involvement in planning processes.  At a broader level, those promoting CSA need to be responsive to country priorities, especially food security.  Sheila Sisulu, a panelist from South Africa, noted that South Africa is “keen to associate itself” with CSA, but that food security is also a national responsibility.  She noted that developed countries have recently shown great interest in agricultural development in Africa, but that it is imperative for that development to take place in a way that respects the food security and the natural environment of the African continent. Africa must ensure that as it “make[s] land available to feed the world, we are not left with a dust bowl.”

Moderator James Kinyangi of CCAFS wrapped up the event with the closing reminder that climate-smart agriculture must also be farmer-smart.  The emissions-reduction potential of agriculture will be realized—or not—based on a mixture of high-level policies and decisions made at the farm and local levels. As we consider how agricultural landscapes can contribute to climate change mitigation, we must also think about people as integral parts of the landscapes in which they live.

Further Reading
2013 UNEP Emissions Gap Report

New Global Review study – Climate-smart landscapes: opportunities and challenges for integrating adaptation and mitigation in tropical agriculture, Harvey, et al. 2013

Photo by Emily Spiegel
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