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COP26: Slow progress made on agricultural sector emissions

16 November 2021 Cristina Brooks

A comprehensive global plan for sustainable food and agriculture will have to wait, according to observers summing up the COP26 climate summit outcomes.

European think tank E3G criticized governments' failure to achieve a plan for the sustainable agriculture sector despite the claim by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that significant progress had been made, and blamed slow progress on public sensitivity around land ownership and farm subsidies.

Agriculture accounts for 23% of anthropogenic GHG emissions in the form of potent nitrous oxide from soils, fertilizers, and manure, as well as methane from livestock and paddy rice cultivation.

UN groups are already trying to deal with the livestock problem, thanks to the Koronivia Joint Working Group on Agriculture which was launched in 2017.

This continued at COP26, where governments came to conclusions on three topics within the Koronivia road map to decarbonise agriculture: sustainable manure management, livestock management, and food security implications of climate change.

The governments are expected to reach decisions related to soil management and animal proteins next year at COP27, said E3G.

So far, emissions from livestock are consumption-based emissions that are not counted in the road map, said Brent Loken, global lead food scientist for NGO Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

What is more, none of the 16 nationally determined contributions (NDCs) submitted by the richest nations include specific targets for their agricultural sectors, according to ESG investor network FAIRR Initiative. The UN Environment Programme acknowledged countries' food sector targets were weak in a January paper.

"The NDCs are a strategic opportunity to integrate countries' climate-related targets with food systems, across government policies and programs," wrote the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food Ruth Richardson in a blog last week.

WWF's Food Practice Leader João Campari said that, despite a review of country targets, the draft COP26 agreement contributed nothing on food sector emissions. "We simply can't achieve 1.5C without food systems transformation," he tweeted on 10 November.

But other policies, such as the launch of the Global Methane Pledge by the US and EU, might get the ball moving on livestock emissions if they are classed as significant sources of methane.

E3G critique

At COP26, 134 countries pledged to stop deforestation for 91% of the world's forests (including Brazil, China, Russia, and Indonesia) through the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use on 2 November.

The NGO World Economic Forum (WEF) will create a fund so 100 million farmers can use lower-emissions agricultural technologies by 2030, a fact that E3G listed as a concrete deliverable on agriculture.

But E3G said that the summit's Nature and Land Use Day on 6 November "saw agriculture and land use overshadowed by forestry" and pointed out significant loopholes in the deforestation pledge.

It praised three pledges which will see investment in more climate-friendly agricultural innovations. It also noted declarations of €1.7 billion to support forest tenure rights of indigenous peoples, and pledges by 16 ministries of agriculture to consider public policy reform.

But it slammed all the pledges and commitments for lacking concrete delivery plans for creating national legislation, and for potentially overlapping. "What is needed now are the corresponding policy shifts to turn pledges into concrete actions," said E3G.

The livestock question remains a major sticking point. "Nobody talked about livestock and dairy, despite references in the Koronivia draft conclusions. The issue is live and unanswered," said the think tank.

E3G encouraged the continued work of those developing the Koronivia road map as well as the work of the UK's Cabinet Office, which campaigned on issues like indigenous peoples' use of forests and natural land financing during the UK's COP presidency.

Carbon market impacts agriculture

Many expect to see more agricultural land used as carbon sinks as a result of climate efforts, for example through the COP26 Article 6 agreement on carbon markets. But this too prompts concerns.

IHS Markit analysts note that already energy companies seeking to create carbon offsets for climate targets use so-called Nature-Based Solutions. These include projects such as forestry, soil carbon, wetland restoration—as well as newer concepts such as biochar.

Many government policies acknowledge the importance of such carbon sinks, and net-zero ambitions have further heightened their prominence, the analysts said.

For example, in July 2021, the European Commission proposed a "Fit for 55" policy package that would set targets for net natural carbon removals for EU member states that compel them to raise the carbon sink capacity of their forests and lands. Likewise, President Joe Biden's executive order to tackle the climate crisis pledges to use agriculture and reforestation in the US.

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