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WATCH THIS! NGO Newsletter #7: Agriculture mitigation and carbon markets – unknown territory

Climate change remains a real threat to the humankind, and while this will not be limited to any specific sector, agriculture will also be threatened by climate change. However, because of agriculture’s potential for mitigation and carbon trading any move to bring this into the carbon credit markets will be a dangerous move for small and marginal farmers.

Agriculture plays a central role in the lives of the poor in developing countries. It does not only contribute to peoples’ livelihoods but also represents an important element for food security. Some forms of agriculture contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Other forms of agriculture contribute little to the climate problem. Some forms of agricultural production are more climate-resilient, and must be promoted in our efforts to protect food security and livelihoods in the face of growing climate impacts on our region.

Climate mitigation in the agriculture sector must be based on real emission reductions or prevention. So far, soil carbon “sequestration” has been presented as a solution to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. But carbon “sequestration” in soils does not reduce or avoid emission reductions per se. As these ‘reductions’ are not permanent, technically, they cannot be defined as sequestration because soils will likely become a net source of carbon as precipitation patterns change and temperatures increase.

Carbon markets are seen as an important source of climate finance. However, in reality this functions differently as it is very difficult to achieve changes in terms of sustainable practices for the agricultural sector by relying on market based mechanisms.   Carbon markets, as defined by the COP-17 in Durban aim “to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote, mitigation actions.” However, until now this has been widely controversial because these markets have a top down governance approach and cannot cater for behavioral change in the agriculture sector or shield small farmers from negative social and environmental impacts. In reality, carbon markets have been beneficial for those firms that have received huge carbon credits for free from governments that can afford to subsidize their industries.

Market-based mechanisms should be based on criteria, such as vulnerability, harm to food production and sustainable development, and be applied on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.

Agriculture offset projects are a very contentious issue because these create significant challenges in terms of measurement and environmental integrity. Furthermore, lack of appropriate data and measurements of in situ soil types as well as their associated climate variability, past and future land use, and management practices all compound the existing problems. Soil carbon content can be highly variable depending on crops and their cropping cycles, human activity, land tenure and the climate itself.

We see a real threat that the solution of carbon markets for climate mitigation in the agriculture sector will be further encouraged in international climate policy negotiations. This has the potential to aggravate already difficult challenges such as land rights and food security.

Drawing  small farmers into carbon markets for the sake of carbon credits will create the potential for increased social conflict and human rights violations around land tenure, land grabbing and the displacement of food production in favor of more easily calculable carbon sinks.

In general there is a widely shared sense that market-based approaches now in consideration at UNFCCC level will not be very successful and likely have negative financial and environmental consequences. Furthermore, experience tells us that such mechanisms do not contribute to emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change and rather jeopardize the agriculture sector’s ability to adapt to global warming.

There is a lot at stake at the upcoming Conference of Parties in Warsaw. Agriculture will be central in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) where mitigation aspects in agriculture such as co-benefits of climate adaptation policy will be discussed. Together with sectorial mitigation approaches and new market mechanisms agriculture will also feature prominently on the discussion agenda. Solely relying on market based measures to mitigate the effects of climate change in the agriculture sector means a high bet on food security and land tenure. Consequentially, this means a great risk for small and marginal farmers in developing countries.

By Ram Kishan, Regional Humanitarian Manager, Christian Aid

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