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17 November 2021 17:03

Cropped, 17 November 2021: Deforestation declarations; Food systems; Nature-based solutions

Multiple Authors

NatureCropped, 17 November 2021: Deforestation declarations; Food systems; Nature-based solutions

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


Deforestation made headlines at the beginning of COP26, with two major announcements coming at the World Leaders Summit: the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and an updated Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade Dialogue. The former pledged to end deforestation by 2030, while the latter focused on creating sustainable commodity trade.

Agriculture and food featured less prominently at the summit, despite an analysis released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at COP26 showing that emissions from food systems have increased by 17% over the past three decades. Critics claimed that there was not enough discussion of livestock emissions.

Nature-based solutions – restoring, protecting or creating ecosystems in order to sequester carbon – are a key feature of many net-zero pledges. But critics of the concept say that countries are relying too heavily on tree-planting and other fixes in lieu of reducing emissions. Text on the use of nature-based solutions was cut from the COP26 pact.

Carbon Brief has just published an in-depth summary of key outcomes for food, forests, land use and nature at COP26 in Glasgow.

Key developments

Deforestation pledges

GLASGOW DECLARATION: The headlining pledge on nature from the world leaders summit at the beginning of COP26 was the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by more than 100 countries and pledging $19.2bn towards ending deforestation by 2030. The declaration was “hailed…as the first major achievement” of COP26, Mongabay wrote, while noting that there was “both praise and criticism” for the pledge. There was some confusion around the formal terms of the pledge. Reuters reported that shortly after the pledge was announced, two ministers from Indonesia – a key forested country and one of the pledge’s signatories – signalled an “about-face” and claimed that the goals need to be “fine-tuned”.

COMMODITY TRADE: Also announced at the summit was a new Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue, jointly led by the UK and Indonesia. The dialogue included 30 countries that are among the biggest producers and consumers of agricultural commodities “working to develop a road map to address deforestation”, the Washington Post reported. Human Rights Watch criticised the discussions leading to the FACT Dialogue as “opaque” and wrote that for the roadmap to succeed, it must “centre human rights, and, in particular, advance Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands”.

INDIGENOUS STEWARDSHIP: Of the $19.2bn promised under the Glasgow Declaration, $1.7bn was specifically earmarked for Indigenous and local communities. Climate Home News reported that this money “came with a promise to include [those groups] in the decision-making and design of climate programmes and finance instruments”. However, the pledge has been met with scepticism from some Indigenous activists. Dinamam Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil network, told Climate Home News that global leaders “never live up to their promises” on climate change. Mina Setra, an activist from Borneo, told the Guardian: “A statement is not enough. We need evidence, not only words.”

BEEN HERE BEFORE: Critics of the Glasgow Declaration pointed out the similarities to the New York Declaration on Forests – which was signed in 2014 and also pledged to halt deforestation by 2030. Mongabay noted that “deforestation has risen, contributing an estimated 23% of total carbon emissions” since the New York Declaration was signed. The New York Times wrote that without any legally binding measures, the agreement has been criticised by civil society groups as “lacking teeth”.

Food systems missing

FOOD SYSTEMS EMISSIONS: A new analysis by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), presented at COP26, showed a 17% increase in food-related emissions since 1990. The study found that 21% of global CO2 emissions, 53% of global methane emissions and 78% of global nitrous oxide emissions came from agri-food systems in 2019. While land-use change and enteric fermentation contributed the largest portions of emissions, the Financial Times noted that the “data also showed that factors, such as transport, storage and food preparation unrelated to on-farm activities and land-use changes were also growing, accounting for more than half of the carbon emissions from agri-food systems”.

METHANE MATTERS: More than 100 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, which was led jointly by the US and the EU and officially launched at COP26. Signatories pledged their support for reducing methane emissions by 30% over 2020 levels by the end of the decade. However, some critics felt there was not enough focus on limiting agricultural methane. EurActiv reported that “environmental campaigners were disappointed by the lack of reference to behavioural measures such as shifting diets or tackling food waste”. Politico noted that while US president Joe Biden’s methane-reduction plan included “serious and essential new regulations” to limiting fossil-fuel-related emissions of methane, it “misrepresent[ed] and minimise[d] the livestock sector’s contribution” to methane emissions.

COW IN THE ROOM: Protesters marched through Glasgow with a 40ft (12m) inflatable cow to draw attention to the methane emissions associated with livestock agriculture, the Guardian reported. The paper noted that during COP26’s nature day, discussions around food included “a lot of talk about protecting forests but less about cutting meat consumption, food waste and firm pledges to change farming subsidy systems”. Meanwhile, a DeSmog analysis of the COP26 delegate list revealed that the Brazilian delegation “include[d] powerful agribusiness connections as well as other major polluters” – among them, senior executives of two of the country’s largest meat companies.

Nature-based solutions controversy

DRAFT TEXT: The term “nature-based solutions” was included in draft text circulated on 10 November, which “emphasise[d] the critical importance” of such approaches. That text was ultimately removed and replaced with the phrase “protecting, conserving and restoring nature”. Climate Home News reported that the inclusion of the term was opposed by the coalition of like-minded developing countries. Parties pushing for the term to appear in the text included the US,  UK and EU, as well as Fiji, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Climate Home News also wrote that “Indigenous leaders from forest regions…stress[ed] that [the term] must come with safeguards for their rights.” 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: In The Conversation, Prof Doreen Stabinsky and Dr Kate Dooley wrote that “most”  net-zero pledges “rely heavily on planting trees or protecting forests or farmland to absorb some of their emissions”. The researchers noted that nature-based solutions are “temporary removals” of carbon and “cannot compensate” for a failure to reduce fossil fuel emissions. The Guardian reported that by some calculations, the collective national net-zero pledges require “plant[ing] enough trees to cover a landmass the size of Australia”. This, the outlet noted, “threatens livelihoods, food security and sacred traditions of Indigenous communities and small-scale farmers”.

News and views

DEFORESTATION INVESTIGATION: An analysis of satellite imagery “identified significant discrepancies” between land-clearing activities being carried out in Queensland, Australia and the official statistics, according to the Guardian. The paper reported that reductions in land-use change account for “almost all the [emissions] reductions” that the Australian government claims it has made since 2005. Dr Martin Taylor of the University of Queensland, who led the assessment, told the Guardian, “it flummoxes me…It’s so glaringly obvious something is wrong.” The Guardian wrote that the new analysis means the country “is likely to be releasing more emissions from deforestation than reported”.

INDIA EMISSIONS: India is working towards a “national mission for sustainable agriculture”, an unnamed official told the Hindustan Times – despite resisting some similar measures at COP26. The article notes that “India needs a comprehensive policy on cutting farming emissions” but this will “require a balance” between competing interests of food security, farmers’ livelihoods and climate change. Among the practises already being undertaken are better water management and soil health cards, but further steps could be taken in better feed and manure management of livestock, green energy and eliminating crop-burning, the Times wrote.

SOIL STRATEGY: The European soil strategy, set to be released on 17 November, will only lead to a legislative proposal in 2023, according to documents leaked to EurActiv. The strategy is supposed to create an “overarching policy framework” towards combating soil degradation. EurActiv called the leaked documents “strong on vision” but said that “there is little in the way of binding commitments” within the strategy so far. Instead, the outlet said, “the strategy will piggyback [on] other legislative proposals as a vehicle for delivering on soil protection”.

CARBON-NEUTRAL CALIFORNIA: A draft strategy from the California Natural Resources Agency “maps out a grand vision” of using agriculture to achieve climate targets, the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) wrote. The strategy includes “potential reforms” across eight types of landscapes, including croplands and forests. It also lists existing “climate-smart land management initiatives” within the state. However, FERN added, “[t]he report reads as something of a brainstorm, and it’s not clear which – if any – of its proposals will be implemented as state programmes, goals or laws”. The draft is being circulated for public comment until 24 November.

Extra reading

New science

Climate impacts on global agriculture emerge earlier in new generation of climate and crop models
Nature Food

According to a new study, updated climate and crop models predict “markedly more pessimistic” climate impacts to crops in key producing regions than previously thought. Researchers compared future projections of crop yields from the latest generation of climate models to those from the previous set under two different emissions scenarios. They found that while wheat yields are likely to improve over the coming decades, maize yields will be negatively affected by the warming climate and increased CO2 levels. (The signals for soya and rice crops are less robust.) The authors conclude: “while future yield estimates remain uncertain, these results suggest that major breadbasket regions will face distinct anthropogenic climatic risks sooner than previously anticipated”.

Rebound in China’s coastal wetlands following conservation and restoration
Nature Sustainability

Increased efforts towards conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands have caused a “substantial” expansion in saltmarsh area in China since 2012, a new study found. From satellite imagery, researchers generated maps of coastal wetland areas in China dating back to 1984 and examined changes in wetland area over time. They find that the extent of coastal wetlands “significantly decreased” between 1984 and 2011, but these trends have flattened or even reversed since 2012, which the authors attribute to government-led conservation and restoration projects. They concluded that regional maps of land-use change such as these are “invaluable for improvement of coastal wetland management” in China.

Regional disparities and seasonal differences in climate risk to rice labour
Environmental Research Letters

A new study found that limiting warming to 1.5C, rather than 2C, could prevent a 2% reduction in labour capacity of rice harvesters across southeast Asia. Using climate model output and historic data on rice production, researchers determined how much of a given country’s rice crop would be harvested under hazardous labour conditions for a range of warming scenarios. They found that in some areas, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, virtually the entire rice crop would be harvested under hazardous conditions. The authors wrote that their study “highlight[s] the regional disparities and importance in considering seasonal differences” of the effects of climate change on labour.

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione and Aruna Chandrasekhar.

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