The Paris Climate Agreement: silent about agriculture

Door: Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS) | Categorie: Agriculture, Climate

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.


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