Global Policy Forum

Three Paths for Agriculture at Global Climate Talks

This article by GPF Senior Fellow Doreen Stabinsky provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the UN Climate Change Conference in Panama in October 2011. According to Stabinsky, the meeting failed to make any substantative progress on the issue of agriculture as most of the time was devoted to procedural maneuvering by countries present. Stabinsky comments on the reluctance of some developing countries to adopt a work program on agriculture that was put forward by a handful of developed countries, specifically the US, Canada and New Zealand. Stabinsky states that the direction of a work program and the adoption of a text will set the agenda for the pressing issue of agriculture in climate talks for years to come.

By Doreen Stabinsky


October 14, 2011

In the global climate talks agriculture is a peripheral issue, despite the serious impacts rising temperatures will have on crop production worldwide and significant emissions that come from the agriculture sector. Negotiations on agriculture within the UNFCCC arena are currently taking place under the heading “Cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in order to enhance the implementation of Article 4, paragraph 1(c), of the Convention,” along with the topic of bunker fuels – fuels used in aviation and shipping.

The meeting in Panama completed over the weekend was the last before the next Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Durban, South Africa in December. Panama saw little progress on the issue of agriculture, as most of the meeting was devoted to procedural maneuvering. A group of countries (India, Brazil, China, South Africa, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) started the week’s negotiations by proposing text for the general framework provisions of the document – general framework text that would be applicable to any of the sectors that could be considered under this particular heading: transport, waste management, energy, agriculture, forest, and industry.

The proposal was met with some consternation on the part of several developed countries, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand in particular, who are keen to establish a work program on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). Their enthusiasm for an agriculture work program is not shared by most developing countries, reflected by the emphasis they placed during the week on negotiating the general framework text, rather than the agriculture-related portion of the document.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive that these particular developed countries, with huge industrial agricultural sectors and thus significant emissions from the sector, would be more interested in a work program on agriculture than the developing countries that will likely suffer more serious impacts in their agriculture sectors. One possible explanation is that these developed countries would like to actually shift attention away from their emissions towards the mitigation potential that exists in developing country agriculture. They could also be seeking to exempt agriculture from emission reduction requirements, possibly by giving the sector a special status due to its importance for global food security.

Regardless of the motivation, the relegation of agriculture to the SBSTA will limit the ways in which the UNFCCC considers the sector, one of the reasons for developing country resistance to the proposal on the table. SBSTA deals with scientific and technical issues – such as methodologies to measure carbon stored in the soil. Addressing the significant adaptation challenges to agriculture from a changing climate will go well beyond scientific and technological questions, and circumspection about how to address the sector within the UNFCCC institutional framework is a reasonable response by negotiators.

Another reason for developing country reluctance about a SBSTA work program is its emphasis on mitigation, rather than adaptation. The original framing of sectoral approaches under Article 4.1(c) of the convention includes a paragraph specifically dealing with the development, application and diffusion of mitigation technologies, practices and processes – not immediately relevant to countries for which adaptation is a much more pressing concern.

The week ended with two countries tabling two additional options for the agriculture section of the document: an option by Bolivia to have no text at all on agriculture; and an option from New Zealand for text that included all their favorite paragraphs to quickly advance the work program on agriculture and omitted all the paragraphs that they had been contesting. The text reflecting all three options will be forwarded to Durban as a facilitator’s note. The direction of those talks could set the agenda for agriculture in the climate talks for years to come, or perhaps launch a deeper discussion on the kinds of agriculture and climate finance needed to achieve food security and rural livelihoods in a warming world.


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