What does the Paris Agreement mean for the agri-food system?


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Action from Oxfam. Author: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam

On 12th December 2015 the Paris Agreement was reached at the COP21 negotiations. I was in Paris at the time participating from the emerging global climate movement that took the streets during the weeks prior to the event, despite the state of emergency declared after the terrible terrorist attacks. Considered by many as an historical turning point in the global fight against climate change, while others describe it as an epic failure, this agreement brought together 196 parties (195 countries and the EU) to agree on a common long-term strategy on how to tackle climate change. Since the Agri/Cultures project is assessing different agri-food systems in terms of their contribution to sustainable development (as well as their social utility and ethical justifiability), we wondered, what does the Paris Agreement mean for the future of agri-food systems?

Agriculture is both profoundly impacted by and impacts climate change. The global agri-food system is responsible of an astounding 44-57% of global GHG emissions, including not only the farming component of the system but also the connected deforestation, food waste, transport, processing, packing, retailing and freezing involved.

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  1. Ambitious targets without a concrete plan

The overall problem of the Paris Agreement is that despite setting surprisingly ambitious targets to limit the temperature increase below +2ºC, or even +1.5ºC, there is no agreement on any actual plan to reach the target (which is important since the current national commitments do not collectively add up to the target emissions reductions.)

In December 2015, the world was +1ºC warmer and more humid than pre-industrial levels. In order to stay below a +1.5ºC increase, the world would have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030, which would need measurable, strict and binding guidelines to achieve it. Regardless of such a significant change being required to meet the target though, the new agreement doesn’t actually take effect until 2020, so the window of possibility to achieve the +1.5ºC goal will arguably have passed if nations wait until the Agreement enters into force to act .

176 of the world’s 195 countries that went to Paris wrote down what their plans to tackle climate change were. However, even if all of these actions were taken, the world would still be heading for 3 degrees or more of global warming by the end of this century. This would put us in a dangerous and uncertain world, with floods, droughts, superstorms and permanent hostile weather conditions that will severely affect societies and ecosystems. Agriculture, thus, may be intensely impacted in the dystopian future we are heading to because even a difference of half a degree will make a world of a difference for the food we eat.

2. No new climate finance mechanisms

“Climate finance means paying developing countries to move beyond reliance on fossil fuels that made the U.S. and other developed countries rich. It also means paying for vulnerable communities and ecosystems to adapt to the climate change that’s already happening”, as Oscar Reyes, from the Institute of Policy Studies, puts it.

Not only have rich countries repeatedly failed to provide climate finance on anything close to the scale needed, but also, in the Paris Agreement there is no binding requirement for financial contributions from individual countries, only a new ‘collective’ financing goal of at least $100 billion per year set for developed countries. This is despite the estimated need, according to the Climate Fairshares tool, being upwards of $400 billion per year. This is especially relevant for farmers and subsistence communities from poorer and more vulnerable countries (often predominantly women), since in the years to come, their production will face increasing uncertainty due to instability in weather conditions and without support to adapt to the changing conditions, pursuing farming as a livelihood will become increasingly difficult and unappealing for younger generations.

3. There are no legally binding targets to reduce emissions

As Oscar Reyes states:While the now defunct Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for rich countries related to their responsibility for causing climate change (admittedly, with some considerable loopholes), the new deal takes an “anything goes” approach. Countries are free to promise whatever they want, and there’s no penalty if they break these promises”. The only obligation that is mentioned in the Paris Agreement is for nations to come together again in 2023 (and every 5 years) after this.

Through the lens of agri-food systems, this means that there are no clear pathways to or binding targets for change in this sector. This leaves the current trend of pursuing agricultural systems for increased production, trade and consumption of foods that are big emitters of GHG to continue. Tangibly, this means that models of  industrial farming oriented towards global export, with the accompanying long geographic and temporal production-consumption chains (i.e. requiring extensive processing, packaging, freezing and transport) will continue to be promoted as the ideal model for the future over local farms and food systems.

4. There is no reference or clear timeline for the phasing out of fossil fuels nor for GHG intensive agricultural systems.

Oil plays a major role in many dimensions of the agri-food system (e.g. in the practices of high input and highly mechanized industrial farms, as well as in transport, processing, packaging and freezing). To stay below the 2ºC target and have a chance of surviving in a disrupted future, it has been argued that we would have to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground. As such, it seems imperative to actively promote low-carbon agri-food systems. This would imply, among many other things, favouring small production-consumption trade dynamics, short supply chains, organic farming methods and cutting back on meat and dairy production, consumption and trade. Despite this, the only two mentions of food and farming in the Paris Agreement are not in the binding part of the text and are more vague references to care for food security and world hunger, with no real attention given to how food is produced or any mention of ‘small-holder farmers’, even if they produce around 70% of the food we consume. As Hilda Elver, UN Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food, puts it: “In most developing countries, agriculture is a major sector of the economy. It has become crucial to understand that the interests of the small-holder farmers and agribusinesses are not easily reconcilable.”

5. There are no guidelines on land use.

In short, despite high ambitions on the question of what level of temperature rise needs to be avoided, the Paris Agreement does not seem to provide enough details to support the kind of radical structural changes needed in societies to avoid dangerous climate change. For agri-food systems, which are a hugely important but very often overlooked or neglected contributor to climate change, this means effectively reinforcing the existing power dynamics of an industrial, globalised, concentrated and highly carbon intensive agricultural model.

In preparing this post, we struggled a little bit to find specific critical analyses of the interrelated themes of climate change and agri-food systems. Do you know of any good research or additional articles that further develop this topic? If so, leave us a comment and we will be very happy to look into them!