Soil carbon markets a “dangerous distraction” for African farmers.
[Bonn, Germany] “I am sorry I was late. I was talking to my wife on the phone. She tells me that the rains have just come a month early and we were discussing what to plant. Last year they came a month late. You see how this climate change is affecting us, and how we need to adapt.” Sidat Yaffa is a small-scale farmer from the Gambia. But Sidat was apologising to an unusual crowd – his fellow UN negotiators from around the world, here in Bonn to discuss agriculture and to negotiate what can be done in the context of climate change.
Sidat’s grounded perspective is unusual in these corridors. But his views on the importance of addressing the need for adaptation were echoed by almost every country, and particularly developing countries. When negotiations began 2 weeks ago, it seemed that there was widespread agreement. Negotiators all commented on the productive spirit and good feeling between countries, in stark contrast to other parallel discussions on climate change. But gradually, cracks have emerged, and the “good feeling” expressed seems to be souring as the differences between countries’ agendas become apparent.
The main dispute is about whether mitigation should also be a focus of discussion and action in agriculture. Agriculture in industrialised countries uses vast amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, processing and transport. In addition to the resulting CO2 emissions, the methane from huge manure slurry lagoons produced by factory farmed livestock, and the Nitrous Oxide emissions from fertiliser use, means that agricultural emissions from Developed countries are far greater than those from Developing countries.
The logical assumption, therefore, would be that Developing countries would want to include Mitigation in the discussions, and that Developed countries would be opposed. One might assume that Developing countries, on the front line of climate change, would see this as a chance to force Developed countries to step up to their responsibilities and to reduce the climate impact of industrialised agriculture. But here in the UN climate negotiations, nothing is that simple. Or that equitable. Instead, it is Developing countries who are calling for a clear focus on Adaptation, and Developed countries who are calling to recognise the “synergies between adaptation and mitigation”.
Why is the inclusion of mitigation problematic? Developing countries, and Africa in particular have 2 major concerns. Firstly, Industrialised countries are working to erode the principle that that they must take the strongest action for emissions cuts. Since the Durban negotiations in December last year, they have consistently pushed for Developing countries to shoulder the mitigation burden. Even though rich countries are responsible for far more emissions, they would like to see the same pattern in agriculture, with poor countries taking responsibility to mitigate climate change – while rich countries do less and less. The Developed countries like to give the impression that they are wiling to take action on their own agricultural emissions. But when I asked the US negotiator what activities the US would be willing to undertake, he replied frankly: “I don’t think we should be obliged to do anything.”
Developing countries are also deeply suspicious of talk about “adaptation and mitigation synergies” in the context of these negotiations. It is absolutely true that the most effective agricultural adaptation strategies – such as organic and agroecological methods that enhance seed and crop diversity – are also hugely effective for climate mitigation. But suspicion comes amid much talk from the World Bank and other actors such as the FAO, who say that these synergies mean that adaptation in developing countries can be funded by carbon offsets from mitigation. The FAO call this “Climate Smart Agriculture”. [link]
But setting up carbon markets is complicated and expensive. Developing methodologies and monitoring systems for soil carbon offsets is particularly complex. Precious and limited donor public finance for adaptation in Developing Countries is already being diverted towards measurement, reporting and verification of carbon stocks for carbon markets, as seen in the case of the World Bank’s showcase Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP). But the plummeting price of carbon towards €3 per ton shows that carbon markets are an “overhyped, unreliable, volatile and inequitable source of funding for Africa,” as more than 100 African and international organisations wrote in a recent letter to African negotiators. Farmers in the KACP project have been told that they will be earning carbon finance, and will be given an unspecified amount of money after 3 years. What they do not realise is that they are likely to be paid between $1-$5 per year for their work.
As Malian negotiator Seyni Nafo underlined, “The negotiations on agriculture here in Bonn must focus on identifying and taking action on what the international community must do now to assist African farmers to adapt. Discussions of enhancing ‘synergies’ between adaptation and mitigation offset efforts is a dangerous and costly distraction from the most pressing needs for adaptation.”
Funding from mitigation could instead incentivise perverse farming systems with devastating social and environmental impacts for Africa. “Carbon land grabs” could exacerbate the land-grabbing trend already seen across the continent. Proponents of GM crops claim that Roundup Ready crops can reduce soil carbon emissions through reduced tilling.
In contrast, genuine and effective strategies for farmer adaptation put seeds, soils and water in the hands of farmer. 70% of the world is currently fed by small-scale food producers using agroecological strategies. These use less water, less land and fewer resources. They produce fewer emissions, protect ecosystems, and enhance health and nutrition. Genuine adaptation strategies must value the work, knowledge and seed diversity of small-scale farmers in developing countries. It is their biodiversity, their ecological management systems that will give them the resilience to the coming changes and challenges from climate change.
However, industrialised countries are calling for so-called “efficiency and productivity”, which we know they interpret as industrial and not ecological agriculture. Such top-down processes designed by powerful interests will undermine, not strengthen farmers’ capacity to adapt.
Many African negotiators recognise the need to engage in a bottom-up way with farmers and rural communities, to assess and understand the skills and resources that can and must be strengthened. But there are powerful players here who hope to use the climate emergency as an opportunity to impose industrial systems and spread the mitigation burden, in a way that that will only leave farmers and nations even more vulnerable to climate change.
Developed and Developing countries at Bonn have not been able to agree on the most basic principles: that those countries responsible for the planet’s industrial agriculture emissions should take responsibility for mitigation. But for now at least, until the next round of negotiations, Africa’s soils are safe from carbon markets.