In our second post on the Durban Climate Change Conference, David Howlett asks what was agreed on agriculture.

David Howlett

I am co-author of a new paper – What next for agriculture after Durban? – published in the journal Science. Here are some thoughts from the article and the conference itself.

The 17th conference of the parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended two days late on 11 December 2011. The extra time was used by governments to agree the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (PDF).

The ’Durban Platform’ is simply an agreement to reach a new agreement by 2015 that would reduce emissions and put the world on track to limit global warming by two degrees and come into effect in 2020.

While this is welcome, as was progress in the Green Climate Fund (see footnote 1) and REDD+ initiative to reduce deforestation, much remains to be done to agree who cuts by how much and when, and then for 190-plus countries to agree this including the two largest global emitters – the United States and China.

Unfortunately, decisions on the specifics for agriculture and global food security did not live up to expectations.

Why was progress on agriculture and food security limited?

An agreement was reached on agriculture (see footnote 2) but this used vague, non-committal terms like ’exchange of views‘, ’to consider‘, ’with a view to‘, and ’to look at‘. This means that while agriculture is on the UNFCCC agenda there is no commitment to do anything about it.

Why wasn’t there more progress on agriculture and food security? It wasn’t because there hadn’t been a focus on agriculture and climate change in 2011. There had in fact been numerous meetings and reports. For example the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, chaired by Professor Sir John Beddington, released a summary of its findings calling for urgent action. African agriculture ministers also issued a unified call for action (PDF) ahead of Durban. Scientists called for action at Wageningen conference on Climate-Smart Agriculture. UN agencies sent a common letter to UNFCCC asking the inclusion of agriculture.

In Durban, Kofi Anan (former UN Secretary-General), Mary Robertson (former President of Ireland), Jacob Zuma (President of South Africa), Meles Zenawi (Prime Minister of Ethiopia) and many other senior figures called for action on agriculture. Caroline Spelman, the Defra Secretary of State highlighted the importance of ‘climate smart agriculture’ for all countries, including the UK, and again called for a work program on agriculture. (Robin Sanders also wrote about the need for climate smart agriculture in Africa on this blog.)

There’s a way – where’s the will?

Five hundred and ninety people attended the third Agriculture and Rural Development Day on 3 December. This looked at how to scale up successful examples of climate smart agriculture that:

  • Delivers sufficient food, fibre, fuel and incomes
  • Sustains the health of the land and increases productivity
  • Does not degrade forests or biodiversity
  • Sequesters carbon
  • Reduces net agriculture and food greenhouse-gas emissions

So in Durban there was political support, compelling evidence on the need for action, and successful examples of investment in agriculture achieving multiple wins.

But progress was slow due to the political economy of UNFCCC negotiations. This is complex but in brief there are five issues:

  • For some countries agriculture is more important in their economies than others, and it becomes a bargaining chip in the negotiations for those where it is less important or those that want a concession in another area
  • Others are concerned that including agriculture may lead to trade barriers to agriculture exports, and/or trading in agriculture carbon which will only benefit rich farmers and not the millions of smallholder farmer
  • Agriculture is seen as  too complex with limited awareness of  existing solutions that can be scaled up under UNFCCC  to achieve adaptation, mitigation, livelihood and economic benefits
  • Forestry stakeholders worry that funding for forestry may be diverted to agriculture
  • A bureaucratic hurdle – agriculture cuts across the two negotiating streams, one on adaptation and the other on mitigation, but it doesn’t work as it needs to do both causing.

I also believe there is sixth issue closer to home.

This is our failure as scientists that, while we have compelling evidence for urgent action on agriculture to achieve global food security, we need to do better at communicate this evidence to policy makers and the public.

We need a better understanding of the political economy surrounding policy decisions at the global, regional and national levels, and to do better at translating and communicating our research to influence policy.

If we don’t then many of the 1Bn people who will join us by 2025, 500M of them in Africa, will end up poor, hungry, and at greater risk from climate change.


  1. Green Climate Fund – report of the Transitional Committee. FCCC/CP/2011/L.9.
  2. Paras 68 to 71 in Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention to be presented to the Conference of the Parties for adoption at its seventeenth session. FCCC/AWGLCA/2011/L.4 –

About David Howlett

At the time of writing, David Howlett was the Executive Director of Africa College and a visiting senior research fellow in climate change and agriculture at the University of Leeds. He has now returned to the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) where he is working on climate change adaptation. At Leeds he worked with research scientists across different faculties and with African research partners to increase the impact of their research including using their results to produce evidence to inform agriculture and climate change policies.

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