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The Paris Climate Agreement: silent about agriculture

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

In our previous blog on the Paris Climate Agreement, we already showed that there are important things missing from the Agreement, such as a collective emissions reduction target and a proper enforcement mechanism. This time, I would like to focus on another missing and completely underestimated issue: the impact of climate change on agriculture and vice versa.

Photo by Flickr user philHendley

Photo by Flickr user philHendley

The very few references that earlier versions of the negotiating texts made to agriculture all disappeared from the Agreement. As a consequence, the Agreement does not mention agriculture at all. This is a missed opportunity. There are pressing reasons for the international community to start regulating both emissions from agriculture and adaptation in this sector. The agricultural sector is responsible for almost 25% of anthropogenic GHG emissions, both through CO2 emissions caused by deforestation and peatland drainage, and through methane (NH4) emitted by livestock and rice cultivation, as well as through nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions caused by the use of synthetic fertilizers and the application of manure on soils and pasture. The latter two substances have a 25 times and 300 times stronger impact on the climate than CO2 respectively. With a sharp rise in food demand ahead of us, these emissions can be expected to go up drastically when no regulatory caps are in place.

Agriculture is also among the sectors that will suffer the largest negative impacts of climate change, for which, consequently, huge adaptation efforts are needed. Local temperature increases of 2°C or more without adaptation will negatively impact production of the major crops in tropical and temperate regions (wheat, rice and maize) and irrigation demand will increase by more than 40% across Europe, USA, and parts of Asia. The negotiators of the Paris Climate Agreement were worried about the food security issues and mentioned in the preamble that they recognize the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change. This is a much weaker version, though, of an earlier proposal to include a binding adaptation goal in the Agreement on “maintaining food security”. The first part of the preambular provision on food security seems to imply that maintaining food security might be a reason to not impose mitigation measures on the agricultural sector. In the negotiating texts, food production regularly emerged as a limiting factor to mitigation actions. In the final version of the Paris Climate Agreement, only one such reference survived. One of the objectives of the Agreement, laid down in Article 2, is: “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production”.

Given the contribution of agriculture to climate change and the impact of climate change on agriculture, it is disappointing that so little attention is paid to agriculture in the Paris Climate Agreement, as this document is expected to set the tone for the world’s climate policies of the coming years.

The European Union opted for a much firmer approach toward agriculture. In the run-up to the Paris Climate Agreement, the European Commission announced that it would encourage “climate friendly and resilient food production, while optimising the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation and sequestration.” For example, it proposed to include cropland and grazing land management in its policy from 2020, developing instruments to do so before 2020. The EU even proposed to focus its future climate change instruments on all agricultural activities, such as enteric fermentation, manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soils, prescribed burning of savannahs, field burning of agricultural residues, liming, urea application, other carbon-containing fertilisers, cropland management and grazing land management and “other.” As a consequence, the EU proposed to fully include agriculture in the Paris Climate Agreement in two ways: as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and as a means of CO2 absorption and sequestration. This would mean that the agricultural sector has to undergo a drastic transition from conventional farming to farming using climate smart agricultural practices.

The above account of what survived the negotiations shows that the EU negotiators were not able to convince the others of the importance of including agriculture in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The fact that the Paris Climate Agreement does not pay attention to agriculture, however, does not mean that the document will not be important for the sector at all. Article 4 states that a balance needs to be achieved between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gasses in the second half of this century, in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature well below 2°C. It is obvious that this automatically implies that drastic mitigation actions are needed to reduce emissions from a sector that is responsible for almost 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Apparently, the world leaders were afraid to tell you…

Similarly in the area of adaptation, the silence about agriculture does not mean nothing will happen. Many of the provisions on adaptation and finance aim at giving increased support to developing countries to meet their adaptation needs, both through greater emphasis on providing financial resources and through the transfer of technology and capacity building. Given the impact of climate change on agriculture and the dependence of developing countries on this sector, it is beyond doubt that implementation of these new provisions will in fact largely focus on agriculture. The same might be true for the role National Adaptation Plans will play. Article 7(9) of the Paris Climate Agreement requires states to have such a plan aimed at building the resilience of “socioeconomic systems”. Agriculture definitely falls in this category.

Within only two decades a drastic transformation of the entire agricultural sector across the world, in developed and developing countries, is needed. This requires tremendous efforts of policymakers, farmers and the entire agribusiness. Let us hope that, despite the remarkable and regrettable silence of the Paris Climate Agreement about agriculture, states understand the urge to start to develop effective policies aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture while at the same time helping the sector to become more resilient to climate change.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 655565.


Category: Agriculture, Climate


The EU Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms in 2015: at the Crossroad of History

By Ji Li (TLS)

The EU authorization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the most strange and controversial area in the whole EU law system: the scientists are seriously distrusted by the general public, the authorization procedure is ‘unreasonably’ paralyzed or delayed, and the authorized GM products are banned by Member States without legitimate reason. But this is not the case in any other field of innovative technology or environmental law, and cannot be explained simply by precautionary principle or political pressure. This conundrum has puzzled the EU policy makers and lawyers for many years, and 2015 is a crucial year of fundamental reform. With the introduction of the opt-out clause, Member States now have freedom to ban GMOs without recourse to scientific evidence. Such a move may also cause negative effects concerning the EU internal market law and its obligations under the WTO law. We are now standing at the crossroad of history.

GMO is defined as “an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.[1] The commercial application of GM technology in the agricultural sector can introduce many desirable traits into one single crop, thus has huge economic, health and environmental benefits. At the same time, people are also concerned about its potential environmental and health risks, as well as some ethical and socio-economic issues. Under the current EU law, both GM crops and foods/feeds must go through the authorization procedure before marketing. This involves two stages of decision-making: a scientific assessment about their safety and a political vote about their overall acceptability. However, in the past voting, because Member States were deeply divided in their opinions, there were hardly any qualified majority reached in the authorization procedure. In the end, it is always the Commission makes the decisions, which are based on the scientific reports of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and usually grant the authorizations. This fact (purely science-based decisions, at least on the surface) triggers many Member States’ objections and the Council’s reactions. As a result, the authorization of GM food/feed is seriously delayed, and the authorization of GM crops is totally paralyzed, which are in violation of the EU law. But the Commission could not do anything about it because the Member States’ ‘illegal’ actions were backed by the Council.[2]

After many years’ tough negotiations and some small legal revisions, in March 2015 a fundamental legal reform called ‘opt-out clause’ was agreed by all Member States and enacted by the Commission.[3] According to this new legislation, on the issue of GMO cultivation, Member States pro- and anti-GMO are finally unleashed from the political disputes and formally part with each other. For anti-GMO countries, they can now ban GM crops even after authorization without any need of scientific evidence. This can be done either by a blanket withdrawal from all the future authorizations (without need of giving any reason) before 3 October 2015, or (after that date) by quoting some ‘compelling’ socio-economic reasons listed in the legislation in individual case. As a result, 17 out of the 28 Member States have totally opted out on all their territories in this way,[4] while 3 kingdoms of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, leaving only England to be willing to cultivate GMO) and the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium also declared to be GMO-free.[5] For pro-GMO countries, it is expected that the paralysis in the GMO authorization can be unblocked so that more GM crops can be authorized and cultivated.

However, this move also brings about legal uncertainties and new challenges. First, it is hard to say the opt-out clause is conform to the EU internal market law. It is rather to say that it is an exception to the principle of free movement of goods based upon all Member States’ political endorsement.[6] Some Member States and MEPs also would like to opt out for GM food/feed, but such requests were firmly rejected by the European Parliament’s Environmental Committee on the grounds of protecting the EU internal market. This shows that the EU policy makers are very aware that the political exception to the internal market rule cannot be too wide. Second, the opt-out clause is also against the EU’s obligations under the WTO law, especially after the famous US-EU Biotech case in 2006. There is no way to defend in this respect, people just hope the EU will not be sued by the Unites States (and other GMO-producing countries) for two practical reasons: (1) more GM crops will be cultivated in pro-GMO countries, which will hopefully make up for their losses; (2) the import of GM crops is relatively a small part of business (compared to GM products). Third, whether the principle of proportionality is applicable in the scenario of GMOs is also a big issue. It is uncertain at this moment whether Member States’ blanket ban of GM crops (without even giving reasons) would be challenged in the EU courts. Last, the increased cultivation in pro-GMO countries and the total ban in anti-GMO states will expose the sensitive issue of cross-border coordination and the potential liability arising out of GMO ‘contamination’.

In sum, the whole EU GMO regulatory framework stands at the crossroad of history and is facing new possibilities and challenges. Instead of one unified procedure, now the EU regulation of GMOs is running on double trajectories. In the coming few years we will witness how this new approach addresses the needs and pressures from inside and outside EU.


[1] Article 2(2), Directive 2001/18/EC.

[2] It is illegal because these Member States do not have scientific evidence to support a prohibition or restriction to the free movement of an authorized goods in the EU internal market.

[3] Directive (EU) 2015/412.

[4] These Member States include: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovennia.

[5] by Barbara Lewis, ‘Majority of EU Nations Seek Opt-Out from Growing GM Crops’, 2015.10.04, available online at: (last visited on 2015.11.08).

[6] The Commission indicates that the legal basis of opt-out clause could be Article 2 TFEU, which is a new provision introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. The third sentence of Article 2 (2) TFEU reads: “the Member States shall again exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has decided to cease exercising its competence”.


Where is the legal framework for Climate Smart Agriculture?

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Between now and 2050, there will be a sharp increase in the demand for agricultural products. This is caused by an increase of the world’s population from 7 billion today (2012) to 9 billion, the rise in global calorie intake by 60% due to greater affluence, particularly in countries like China and India, and the production of bio-fuels (Meridian Institute 2011). The increase in agricultural production is likely to be accompanied by an increase in the emission of greenhouse gasses. Agriculture is responsible for 30% of total global greenhouse emissions, mainly through land-use change (particularly deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, also affecting biodiversity), methane and nitrous oxide emissions (from livestock and the use of fertilizers). The Meridian Institute, in its 2011 report ‘Agriculture and Climate Change: a Scoping Report’ shows that agriculture is not only a major cause of climate change but in many regions of the world, it is also seriously impacted by climate change. It is expected that by 2050, 56% of crops in Sub-Saharan Africa and 21% of crops in Asia will be negatively affected by the consequences of climate change, for instance because of shifts in water availability, temperature shifts, and changes in the occurrence of pests. This often has direct effects on the availability of food. In other regions, such as Europe, it seems that at least in the short term, climate change can be beneficial to agricultural production, allowing, for example for an additional yield per year or the opportunity to grow a more profitable crop. Europe, though, ultimately will be affected by these developments as well: food shortages are expected due to demand in other markets, particularly the emerging economies, even when taking into account the decline of Europe’s population (European Commission 2012).

Limiting food security risks under climate change requires new climate-smart agriculture policies to be implemented. Around the world, a wide variety of adaptation and mitigation projects are being trialed in the agricultural sector under such headings as ‘carbon farming’ or ‘climate smart agriculture’ (hereafter: CSA). The FAO website on climate smart agriculture has a list of more than 150 projects around the globe. Examples of these are the application of low water use technologies, crop changes, tillage and residue management, land-use change, agroforestry, enhancement of agro-biodiversity, etc.  So far, these, mostly experimental, projects have not or only barely been brought under the existing legal framework on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

With the varieties in effects of agriculture on climate change and in the effects of climate change per region, it is a challenge to come up with an overarching legal framework that allows for both climate change mitigation and adaptation, while maintaining or even improving food security as well as providing benefits to as many people as possible. Although food security has been acknowledged as an important issue under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, bringing adaptation and mitigation in the agricultural sector under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol is only happening at a slow pace. Emissions from land use change and agriculture are included in the Protocol accounting mechanisms, but only when measurable as verifiable changes in carbon stocks. In addition, Parties could elect additional human-induced activities related to LULUCF (Land-Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry), specifically, forest management, cropland management, grazing land management and revegetation, to be included in its accounting for the first commitment period. Only four countries elected for this option in that commitment period, hence strongly limiting the possibilities under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as well. Furthermore, methodological questions have led to restrictive limits. Soil sequestration, for example, has been excluded from the CDM, and land use change can only account for 1% of all CDM credits. Some support to developing countries in the field of agriculture is provided for by the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund.

In general, it must be concluded that the instruments aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions only apply to agriculture to a very limited extend. The relationship between agriculture and climate change is considered to be too complex to be included in current negotiations. There are seemingly insurmountable practical difficulties in integrating agricultural emissions in an emissions trading scheme.

At the international level, it is not just international climate law under the UNFCCC, but also international trade law under the WTO that is relevant when researching the legal framework for CSA. On the one hand, current income support for farmers may constrain CSA, for instance when support schemes do not ‘reward’ farmers for switching to agricultural practices that are aimed at climate change mitigation and adaptation. Under the WTO, reducing market distortions caused by income support to farmers have been discussed for years now, albeit without significant progress towards the liberalization of trade in agricultural products. On the other hand, the WTO’s intellectual property rights law (TRIPS agreement) seems to favour access to climate smart agricultural technologies and practices, as the TRIPS agreement protects IPRs while at the same time favouring technology transfer to developing countries, although the latter –in practice- still is problematic.

At the domestic level, only in very few countries attempts are made to introduce financial benefits to farmers for their mitigation efforts. Probably the best example is Australia that, in 2011, enacted legislation that allows farmers to (voluntarily) generate carbon credits that can be sold on the domestic and international carbon market: the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). Thanks to this initiative, Australia is the country with the most far-reaching example of active legislation aimed at facilitating and stimulating CSA. Farmers earn credits through agricultural emissions avoidance projects (projects that avoid emissions of methane from the digestive tract of livestock, methane or nitrous oxide from the decomposition of livestock urine or dung, methane from rice fields or rice plants, methane or nitrous oxide from the burning of savannahs or grasslands, methane or nitrous oxide from the burning of crop stubble in fields, crop residues in fields or sugar cane before harvest, and methane or nitrous oxide from soil), as well as through sequestration offsets projects.

In the EU, CSA is still very much in the research phase and the regulatory framework is largely absent. Farming is excluded from the EU ETS, but included in the Effort Sharing Decision.  The Effort Sharing Decision establishes binding annual greenhouse gas emission targets for Member States for the period 2013–2020. Member States have to develop their own policies in order to achieve their targets and therefore, may put more emphasis on some sectors than on others. For agriculture, emission reductions could for instance be achieved through more efficient farming practices and conversion of animal waste to biogas. Other than in Australia, LULUCF projects are explicitly excluded from the Effort Sharing Decision, so important measures like cropland and grazing land management and revegetation are not covered. The second route towards addressing emissions from agriculture is through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform in 2013. Here mitigation and adaptation policies meet, as the CAP is also the primary means for promoting climate resilient agriculture. In the initial proposals, the European Commission suggested to earmark 30% of the direct payments for farmers who apply agricultural practices beneficial to climate change and the environment (through crop diversification, maintenance of permanent pasture, the preservation of environmental reservoirs and landscapes, etc.). In addition, it was proposed to give increased financial support to agri-environment-climate projects and organic farming under the EU´s rural development policy. In the final stages of the negotiations, however, these proposals have been watered down to a considerable extent.

Category: Agriculture, Climate

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