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Fiddling with carbon while farmers go hungry? (Watch This! #4)

See Watch This! #4, December 2012

By Anika Schroeder, policy officer for climate change and development, Misereor

MISEREOR is the German Catholic Bishops´ Organisation for Development Cooperation. Ever since its foundation in 1958 MISEREOR has strengthened the self-help capacity of farming communities consisting of people who are not merely passive recipients of aid, as they work hard to ensure their own livelihoods.

New studies indicate that agriculture offers cost-effective emission reductions potential and identify many synergies between mitigation and adaptation in the sector. Consequently, agriculture is gaining momentum in the climate talks. However, no consensus was reached in the recent climate negotiations in Doha for a work programme. Given the risks associated with mitigation investments in this sector this may have been a good choice.

Most parties and observers expected a work program on agriculture to take off at the climate talks in Doha. In the end, no consensus was reached and discussions will continue at the next UN meeting in June. Views on the focus of agriculture negotiations under the UNFCCC still diverge: Should the focus lie on adaptation, adaptation and mitigation, or synergies between mitigation and agriculture? What sounds silly to many is not just about wording. The African Union especially felt that this was about what kind of agriculture programs will be financed under UNFCCC in the future. As some developed countries like the US were blocking any reference to “Common but differentiated Responsibility” African countries also feared obligation to mitigate their emissions in the future and voted to focus on adaptation only. Given the lack of funding available to help communities adapt to climate change, other developing countries agreed to a focus on both, adaptation and mitigation, as they hoped to access urgently needed investments in agriculture.

Civil Society needs to be cautious and spread the voice that the first and foremost entry point of any support to farmers in developing countries should be to enhance adaptation to the severe impacts of climate change! As time runs out there is no time left to fiddle with carbon!

Measuring carbon instead of supporting the most vulnerable?

In fact, many practices that increase carbon content in soils and plants lead to higher yields – like the application of compost. So what´s wrong with the idea of supporting synergies between mitigation and adaptation? Nothing as such, but first of all, the history of climate talks have shown that caution is needed when land use emissions are being addressed. Reducing emissions from land use activities under REDD or CDM, and national policies, have led to a criminalization of marginalized farmers and indigenous communities, displacement from land and often limit the access to natural resources that livelihood systems depend upon. Second, there is a severe risk that limited funds for development and adaptation will be diverted towards carbon accounting of farming and production systems. Third, funds may support practices that ensure highest carbon sequestration measures and “the absolute easiest to measure” techniques, rather than the most appropriate support needed by a farmer. This is especially true when including agriculture into carbon market schemes, which is heavily promoted by the World Bank, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Australia and others.

Carbon markets – A guessing game on climate and people

Funding agriculture via carbon markets would exclusively benefit large-scale farming and companies who are able to bear the high upfront costs to negotiate with buyers of credits and to monitor activities. This could provide incentives for an expansion of large-scale agriculture and lead to further “land grab deals”. Furthermore, carbon market ‘readiness’ projects will surely divert institutional, human and monetary resources away from other development efforts, as a large part of  costs is likely to be met by Official Development Assistance (ODA). According to FAO estimates close to 17 billion Euros are required between 2010 and 2030 to establish a system that enhances carbon trading from soil carbon sequestration. In current debates, the fact that carbon can only be stored temporarily is not seriously taken into account. Moreover, complex biological processes in soils and biomass make it difficult to obtain reliable soil carbon measurements – these, however, would be essential for the quantification of sequestered CO2 and the generation of corresponding CERs. Offsetting and other trading schemes that include carbon sequestration in soils and/or biomass is therefore a guessing game at the cost of global temperature rise and, consequently, at the expense of those most vulnerable to climate change.

Agriculture in the carbon market: battle fields in Doha

While the US and Australia insisted that they don´t follow a hidden agenda in the work program discussions and that they just want to “offer all possible advice and support for developing countries” it got obvious what they really want in regards to agriculture in other negotiation tracks: They fought to open as many doors as possible for soil carbon markets: Australia made clear that they want to include agriculture activities in the CDM (in the CDM LULUCF negotiations). When discussing how to deal with non-permanence of soil carbon sequestration they even claimed a star for their submission, which suggests that the risk of non-permanence should lie with the host country of a project! Agriculture also appeared in the ADP text on mitigation which was eliminated in a last mile veto by G77. However, an indirect reference remains , as the ADP intends to hold a series of thematic workshops and submissions, in which initiatives and options to enhance ambition should be outlined considering also “mitigation and adaptation benefits, including resilience to the impacts of climate change” which is a clear reference to agricultural activities. Unfortunately, the lobby front for carbon markets finally gained ground as land use activities will be part of the New Market Mechanisms as stated in the agreed outcome pursuant to the Bali Action Plan which includes carbon accounting (MRV) for “removals”.

Civil Society needs to be cautious and spread the voice for the African Union that the first and foremost entry point of any support to farmers in developing countries should be to enhance adaptation to the severe impacts of climate change! As time runs out there is no time left to fiddle with carbon!

Further reading and references:

Guiding Principles and Recommendation for climate policies in regards to agriculture. Agriculture: from Problem to Solution Achieving the Right to Food in a Climate-Constrained World. Guiding Principles and Recommendations. CIDSE 2012
MISEREOR 2012: “Climate-smart agriculture – A useful development paradigm?”
MISEREOR 2012: “Carbon markets in Agriculture – Benefitting the Poor and the Climate?”



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