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Stopping the Runaway Train of Climate Change

December 10, 2010
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If climate change is like a runaway train, then only forestry and agriculture, including livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, can do much about its potentially catastrophic consequences for rural people. These sectors offer the best hope for adapting rural livelihoods to the inevitable impacts of climate change, and only they can remove carbon from the atmosphere as part of a larger effort to lessen these impacts.

But are agriculture and forestry converging with sufficient force to stop the runaway train in time?

This was the question occupying the minds of 100 or so people who gathered for an official side event at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The views they considered drew, in turn, on the outcomes of discussions involving 400 people or more attending Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010 on December 4 and over 1,500 attending Forest Day 4 on December 5. Both events were held in parallel with COP16. The purpose of the side event was to feed the insights and outcomes they produced into UNFCCC negotiations.

The event gave neither a clear “yes” or “no” to the question posed above but rather sought a formula for how forestry and agriculture might come together to prevent disaster. At the moment, forestry is ahead of agriculture, but the latter is rapidly catching up after having been all but ignored in climate negotiations so far.

“The mood at Forest Day 4 was one of urgency and even impatience for action,” said Frances Seymour, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research.

Wide agreement emerged several years ago on the potential of REDD+ as a low-cost and effective option for climate change mitigation. Now, a firm international agreement on its implementation is “tantalizingly close,” Seymour said, and good vibes are coming from the negotiation process.

A powerful statement at Forest Day 4 by Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, who urged participants to “push and push hard,” will hopefully bring the birth of a successful outcome even closer. But this will require clear alignment of REDD+ with poverty reduction and other key development objectives as well as strong safeguards to ensure good governance and respect for the rights of rural communities and indigenous people.

Significantly, an opinion poll on key issues showed that only 37 percent of voting participants (less than at last year’s Forest Day) favor incorporating all terrestrial carbon, including that of agriculture, into REDD+. Perhaps, they fear, Seymour suggested, that to broaden the mechanism now would slow progress in its implementation.

Meanwhile, the message that climate security and food security are inseparable and that forestry and agriculture are natural allies for achieving both aims seems to be resonating with climate change negotiators. In any case, many countries, notably China, are already moving ahead with “a whole raft of triple-win solutions in agriculture” that address climate change, foster economic growth and strengthen food security, said Juergen Voegele, Director of Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank.

In support of such initiatives, the organizers of Agriculture and Rural Development 2010 called for much more local action to help the rural poor adapt to climate change impacts and the use of climate finance to realize agriculture’s substantial potential for capturing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Lindiwe Sibanda, Chief Executive Officer of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network.

They also appealed to climate change negotiators to recognize explicitly the critical links between agriculture and forestry and to create an agricultural work program under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice as a first step toward meaningful inclusion of food security in any post-2012 agreement.

But to ensure that agriculture and forestry can converge powerfully, the two sectors must overcome various conceptual and practical obstacles. For this purpose, a roundtable session at Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010 and a learning event at Forest Day 4 addressed the thorny issue of agricultural intensification and its effect on deforestation. They concluded that efforts to produce more food from less land must form part of an integrated package of interventions (including practices such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry and integrated pest management) aimed at achieving multiple benefits in rural landscapes.

To pursue such an approach in spirit and in practice, the forestry and agriculture sectors should perhaps organize a “Landscape Weekend” rather than two separate events at COP17 in South Africa, suggested Peter Holmgren, Director of the Climate, Energy and Tenure Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Along with many others, Dyborn Chibonga, Chief Executive Officer of Malawi’s National Smallholder Farmers’ Association – and the panelist who conjured up the runaway train image – seemed to like that idea. After all, his country has already been through a few train wrecks, and it doesn’t want to see any more.

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