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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 65 - Thursday, 12 March 2009
Climate Change Mitigation: Tapping the Potential of Agriculture1
By Alexander Mueller, Wendy Mann and Leslie Lipper, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Agriculture needs to be part and parcel of efforts to meet international and national climate change objectives. It is a key source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (14% or 6.8 Gt of CO2 eq.), with a high technical mitigation potential (5.5-6 Gt of CO2 eq. per year by 2030), particularly vis-à-vis emissions from the sector. 89% of this potential could be achieved through soil carbon sequestration. Mitigation options from agriculture are already known, readily available and relatively inexpensive.

About 74% of total emissions from the sector are in developing countries and around 70% of the mitigation potential of agriculture could be realized in developing countries. Importantly, mitigation action in the agriculture sector has strong co-benefits for sustainable development (food security, poverty reduction among the 70% of the poor living in rural areas, environmental services) and for climate change adaptation (improving agro-ecosystem resilience). It is therefore potentially of high relevance to NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation action), along with the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).

Perhaps no other sector, if placed on a low carbon pathway, has the potential to contribute so directly to the ultimate objective of the Convention (Article 2 ...stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere...at a level...which ensures that food production is not threatened and enables economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner).

Why then has agriculture remained somewhat marginal to the climate change negotiations? Agriculture isperceived to be a “difficult” sector for three main reasons: (i) the sheer number of areas, farming systems, agro-ecosystems and farmers involved; (ii) robust methodologies for measurement, reporting and verification (MRV), which can address uncertainties related to permanence/saturation, leakage and additionality, are considered to be lacking and expensive; and (iii) the scope of existing financing mechanisms has tended to exclude the LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) sectors, including soil carbon sequestration from agriculture.

Ongoing and new developments regarding MRV methodologies and financing mechanisms could make agriculture a more attractive mitigation option.

In terms of methodologies, the ability to measure soil carbon stock and stock changes has existed for decades. The fundamental issue is rather applying efficient sampling designs and rigorous protocols. Methodologies and approaches are continually being perfected and simplified (e.g. combining measurement and model-based approaches, aggregated field measurement from multiple projects, monitoring and verification employing practice-based approaches, mechanisms to ensure the integrity of sinks over a specified duration [the Voluntary Carbon Standard Permanence Buffer], pooling performance risk over a portfolio of projects or taking a conservative approach in ensuring an adequate buffer). Greater coordination of data collection, modelling and field testing of these is needed, together with capacity building for their use. Work on afforestation and reforestation, as well as more recent work on REDD, may also be helpful in the further development of soil carbon sequestration methodologies and approaches that are robust, simple-to-use and cost-effective.

In terms of financing mechanisms, whether existing mechanisms are reformed or new ones created (and the two are not mutually exclusive), there is growing acceptance of the need for new concepts, approaches, mechanisms and modalities that enable the depth and breadth of mitigation to be expanded. Some have already been developed and introduced, while still others require further testing or development, particularly with regard to smallholder agriculture (e.g. programmatic CDM, sectoral CDM, no-lose accounting, Sustainable Development Policy and Measures, a holistic accounting and trading regime for terrestrial carbon, NAMAs, linking mitigation and adaptation action). A number of these can, or show promise, in helping to overcome constraints on access to climate change financing by LULUCF sectors.

FAO has identified the following key features as being required for funding mitigation from agriculture:  
aggregation (carbon finance, where up-scaled and broad approaches can be applied - e.g. sector, programme, ecosystem - facilitates the involvement of large numbers of smallholder farmers, covering a wide area and range of ecosystems, with influence on the development of needed policies and technologies)
financing arrangements that address the specific needs of smallholder agriculture mitigation adoption, including the need for investment capital, technologies and risk management/transfer (insurance)
a range of options for mobilizing both private and public funds, including use of compliance market credits, voluntary market credits, publicly funded programmes and agricultural product labels, with adequate flexibility to adjust to the specific agro-ecological, institutional and technological situations of Parties, and
an enabling environment with appropriate policies, institutions, capacity building and an agreed system of property use/rights/access in order to link farmers, including smallholder farmers, to carbon financing.

Next steps? At the international level, there is a need to create enabling conditions for further work on mitigation from agriculture in the next climate agreement. At country level, pilot activities are needed to test measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) methodologies and incentive/payment schemes, buttressed by capacity building, technology transfer and institutional mechanisms. Beyond Copenhagen in the transitional period leading up to 2012, ways of realizing terrestrial carbon sequestration from all land uses may need to be explored to enable better management of synergies and trade-offs across different land uses and land use changes.
Agricultural practices that improve land use and management through increasing and maintaining soil carbon stocks can generate multiple benefits: climate change mitigation, increased agricultural and food production, pro-poor income generation, environmental services and improved resilience/adaptive capacity of farming systems. This constitutes an enormous opportunity for meeting a number of key global and national goals. The challenge is to ensure that the enabling means embodied in a new climate change agreement will encourage the agriculture sector and its farmers to generate these benefits, under increasingly adverse conditions shaped by global financial, food and fuel insecurity.
1This article is based on an FAO submission to the UNFCCC Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative action (see http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2008/smsn/igo/036.pdf)
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