Spectacular Failure: Global Climate Pact Deadlock and Where We Go From Here
Issue 3, Cool Foods Campaign, Countdown to Copenhagen, December 2009

Before it even starts, Copenhagen is a spectacular failure. What some thought was apparent several months, and even a year ago, is now official””there will be no climate accord reached when world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December.

This newsletter summarizes the primary factors that have led to failure in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. And, we ask: What can be done to find a way to achieve meaningful, necessary reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

There are a few pivotal reasons that the negotiations stalled:

1) The U.S. failed to bring any domestic policy or plan to reduce its own emissions to the table, even though its less than 5 percent of the world’s population spews out 25 percent of GHG emissions.

2) With less than 20 percent of global population, developed countries have emitted nearly 75 percent of GHG gases. However, industrial nations dismissed the concept of "climate debt," which would take into account this historical record of emissions when determining countries’ emission-reduction targets.

3) Developed nations are unable and/or unwilling to commit financial resources so that developing countries can leapfrog over fossil fuel-based energy sources to alternative, cleaner energy technologies.

Running through these issues, however, is a central failure of governments, as well as some sectors of civil society, to recognize and respond to the realities of people’s lives on the ground.

Climate talks have been built on the assumption that expensive, complicated technologies are the primary way to reduce GHG emissions. Few dispute that countries must develop cleaner energy sources and move away from the madness of intensive fossil fuel-burning societies. Yet we set ourselves up for certain failure when dialogues begin with solutions that require massive financial resources in a time when even rich-country governments simply don’t have, or won't commit, such funds.

Green Agriculture as Clean Energy

Too often "clean energy development" has become the rubric for creating ways for companies to continue to make widgets for a minority of people on the planet, or to maintain a global industrialized system in which food is transported thousands of miles primarily to already well-fed nations, to name a few such anomalies.

Perhaps we could break the stalemate by discussing solutions that are both practical and provide real value to people’s aspirations, livelihoods, and lives. Agriculture both contributes to climate change, and climate change adversely affects people’s ability to grow food. Additionally, agriculture is front and center among a host of other ecological issues””water, wildlife, and more””and is critical to any discussions about equitable and ecological development.

It is imperative that the world shift away from industrial food systems and toward an ecological, organic food paradigm if we are to adequately address climate change. The impact of food systems on climate is well understood, but under-reported. For example:

First””Industrial Agriculture Contributes Significant Greenhouse Gases. Climate change and food systems are critically connected. It cannot be said enough: industrial agriculture practices account for a minimum of 13.5 percent of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and, when adding in the total energy backpack of food systems, could account for at least 30 percent of emissions or higher, according to some analyses. The case for sustainability becomes stronger when one considers that 60 percent of nitrous oxide emissions””the most potent GHG””are due to industrial agricultural methods. Furthermore, roughly half of methane emissions are connected to current livestock practices.[1]

Second-Climate Change Linked to Food Security. Climate change significantly will””and in some regions already has””impacted our ability to grow food. Food security and climate change are inextricably linked. According to a recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, the number of undernourished people in the world increased by 75 million in 2007, an additional 40 million in 2008, and then 100 million more in 2009. There are now 1 billion people going hungry every day.[2]

Most live in developing countries, where the vast majority of climate change-induced hazards take place. The World Bank frames the stark situation: Almost 80 percent of global-warming damage will be suffered by developing countries, even though they contribute only about 30 percent of global GHGs.[3] African nations will be particularly hard hit; in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by 50 percent as soon as 2020.[4] As we know, hunger is already all too prevalent. If we do nothing, the cataclysm to come will be truly horrific.

Recently, 60 of the world's most prominent agricultural scientists announced, "No credible or effective agreement to address the challenges of climate change can ignore agriculture and the need for crop adaptation to ensure the world’s future food supplies."[5] Given the situation, it is madness to ignore food systems when talking about climate solutions.

Third-Food Systems Provide Livelihoods. Agriculture provides livelihoods for 40 percent of the global population; 70 percent of the poor in developing countries depend on agriculture for their subsistence.[6] Reducing hunger and poverty, fostering food self sufficiency, and improving rural livelihoods are key to facilitating equitable, environmental, and viable development.

Fourth””Low-Cost Solution. If we treat sustainable food systems as a climate solution centerpiece, we could break through some of the current stalemate.

Adopting ecological, organic agriculture systems is a low-cost pathway to reach major reduction targets. Providing such inexpensive ways to reduce GHGs could ease pressures on all countries and open space for new dialogue.

To be sure, significant resources need to be devoted toward agroecological sciences. This should include backing for both formal and traditional, community-based research and innovation. However, the financial investment needed for these is minute compared to the levels of financing needed to build massive infrastructures for many alternative energy sources.

Fifth””Low Ambition, or the Scared Factor. Though little discussed, many governments fear they won’t be able to live up to needed levels of reductions; some negotiators will privately say that they have no idea how they can possibly reach emission-reduction goals. This translates in the climate negotiations as a "low level of ambition of developed countries in emission reduction," as Martin Khor, director of the influential South Centre writes.[7]

Perhaps government leaders would be more willing to make bold, meaningful commitments to reduce GHG emissions if they knew the targets were practical, low-cost, and achievable.

Sixth-Converting to Ecological, Organic Agriculture-Whether in International Fora or Through Domestic Policies”” Is a Win-Win-Win- Win, Ad Infinitum.

Ecological, regenerative food systems, which include forest agro-ecology, dramatically increase soil carbon sequestration rates (which scientists tell us are key to reducing global warming) and lower GHG emissions.

Research by Rodale Institute demonstrates that the U.S. could offset 25 percent of its annual emissions if it converted existing farmland to organic methods. Even if American agriculture began by simply changing some conventional soil maintenance practices, that would reduce emissions significantly. Research by Professor David Pimental of Cornell University shows that organic farming approaches for maize and beans in the U.S. not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy, but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality, and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does.[8]

The evidence of the ability of organic agriculture to sequester carbon and lower GHG emissions is so persuasive that even a report that many feared would reflect the heavy participation of agri-business released by the World Bank and the FAO in 2008””the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development””clearly concluded that ecological, organic agriculture was a key mitigation and adaptation factor for climate change.

Such figures should inspire confidence in governments as well as civil society that undertaking a major transition from industrial agriculture methods to ecological food systems will result in significantly lower GHG emissions and will have multi-functional benefits, including addressing two major problems of our time-global warming and food security.

In the post-Copenhagen agenda, let's build a new climate and food future.







[7] - Update Number 13

[8] Pimentel D., Hellerly P., Hanson J., Douds D., Seidel R. (2005) - Environmental energetic, and economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems. "Bioscience", 55, 573-582.