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Paris, the place where we should stop burning our food

Raul Cazan

Paris COP // Land use // Development // 


A decade ago, I had the joy to meet and interview Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food. I thought it was another elitist concept beautifully designed for bourgeois slackers and their selective consumerism. When Petrini started talking I was stunned: it revealed that Slow Food is primarily about social justice, global development and respect for biodiversity. The uptight interview that I was preparing for turned into a friendly discussion. We talked a lot for almost an hour, building on the conclusion that food and land will not suffice on a heating planet. At the end of the meeting he offered me a copy of his book “Buono, pulito e giusto” (Good, Clean and Fair) and that night I devoured it.

In a couple of months I went to Terra Madre in Turin, an incredible gathering of food communities from all over the world, something that Petrini named “the United Nations of peasants”. Indeed, they were all present: from Inuit fishermen to Yoruba seed savers, from Guarani peons to Hindu rice cultivators. Soon after, an inspirational Food/Climate Manifesto was out and it turned into a climatic cornerstone of food security and international development.

“This is the central point, the most important cultural and political point,” Petrini stated. “Virtuous practices already exist in the cultural biodiversity of the farmers of the world. They have extraordinary knowledge and there must be a dialog with official science, an honest, frank and sincere dialog as equals.”

The manifesto is based upon the strong link between climate change and agriculture, drawing attention to the contribution to the problem by the industrial globalized food system and the potential to mitigate it by adapting to ecological and organic farming.

Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, founder of NGO Navdanya, author of “Earth Democracy”, and vice-president of Slow Food International, elaborated on each of the manifesto’s nine points, providing a passionate summary of its principles. Shiva argues that as 35 percent of the climate change crisis comes from agriculture, therefore 35 percent of the solution also lies in farming and food and that we must look seriously at this vital component in analyses of climate change and discussions of possible solutions.

She argues that we must return to sustainable, local, bio-diverse systems that are better adapted to dealing with the cyclones and floods created by climate change, as well as contributing to cleaner air and water and better food.

A great green philosopher, Murray Bookchin, said “…just as capitalist farming has ‘created’ an ‘average’ agriculture, so it has created an ‘average’ farm worker. Wherever the farmer has been dispossessed by huge corporate growers, he has also been replaced by rural laborers who view the intimate problems of crop management with complete indifference.” It meant that the knowledge that local farmers conserve in order to survive, and their communities to develop, is being replaced with a poor proletariat slaving in agro-industry. Their land and the plants that they are conserving constitute the prerequisite for a less warm planet.

The issue that impedes most on reducing emissions and ensuring progress in the developing world lies in “burning food in the gas tanks”, as many critics coined the biofuel business. It turned out to be the highest issue on the UN agenda and one of the starkest brakes of international cooperation.

COP21, Paris

A climate deal in Paris is not that much about reducing industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, but more about international development. Though so far the Conferences of the Parties at the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change were mostly about cutting down on CO2, currently discussions have switched to more profound approaches: land use and land use change, green technologies for the developing world, access to knowledge, preservation of natural habitats.

The developing countries are the ones that will first be impacted by a changing climate; their poverty will impede a due mitigation and adaptation to global warming, it has usually been said. Their role is tantamount, however, and it entangles not merely the money, otherwise so much needed in order to cope with climatic challenges, but a positive “exploitation” of natural capital.arton3155

Let us not be naïve; right now, 99% of the talks and negotiations are revolving around money. Fast start funding and adaptation to climate change were at the peak of the UNFCCC agendas since the COP in Copenhagen (2009). Only the EU has to put out of the pocket around EUR 70 billion.

“We do no think that there’s a strong reason for Europe to jump forward with a new Kyoto without sorting out a number of conditions,” a EU official said. “The first one is the environmental integrity. The 20% target that Europe has adopted is much more stringent than the case of continuing simply under Kyoto. There are a number of major flaws in the Kyoto Protocol that must be sorted out before the EU can subscribe to a legally binding agreement. For instance “land – use change”, which currently means that you can just do whatever you like.”

In the light of the Millennium Development Goals, starting 2001, the international community thought of empowering developing states in maintaining their environmental sustainability, on one hand, and ensure their own energy generation while being respected players on the global market.

Two major events circled these purposes: the Marrakesh Accords in the 2001 UNFCCC COP and the biofuels business. The latter one promised that developing countries were going to be real players on the global energy market, while the Marrakesh UN meetings were building on the idea that nature preservation and land use influence the climate to a very large extent. So the global North wanted more food and more fuel. That meant that they wanted more land and the EU was preparing the ground.

How did food get into the gas tank?

The biofuels business went crazy in about 2007. The European Union’s decision to require that biofuels be added to all vehicle fuel meant there was a legally guaranteed market. Many governments were emboldened to get into biofuels after hearing George W. Bush call for a biofuels drive in his State of the Union address in January 2006. And financiers were seduced by the prospects put forth for jatropha by Goldman Sachs. They saw big profits and major development opportunities. Back then, Brazil was talking about replacing a tenth of the world’s fossil fuels with sugar ethanol. Malaysia and Indonesia both said they would set-aside up to 40 percent of future palm oil plantations for biodiesel. Even oil companies joined in. Chevron claimed to have a million acres of land set aside for biofuels in the United States. And Western entrepreneurs headed for Africa in search of cheap land to grow old-style vegetable oils, sugar for ethanol, or new wonder-crops like jatropha. NGOs counted more than a hundred biofuels projects in Africa, operated by fifty companies in twenty countries. At one stage it was estimated that such projects covered as much as 27 million acres. (Fred Pearce in “The Landgrabbers. The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth”, Transworld Publishers, London, UK)

Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers' cover
Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers’ cover

Biofuels require land; a lot of it. Not many biofuels grow in deserts. If biofuels replace something else, whether a crop or natural vegetation, that has to be taken into account. The most dramatic example is oil palm. It is often grown on land formerly occupied by rain forest and carbon-rich peat bogs, writes Pearce. Clearing the forests and draining the peat bogs will create a huge carbon footprint. Taking that into account, the overall carbon footprint of biodiesel from palm oil is often much greater than that of fossil oil. Biofuels are grown on former pastures, in which case we need to know how much carbon the grass would have absorbed. They might be grown on fields that once grew food. Assuming the food now has to be grown somewhere else, we then need to know where it is grown, and what the carbon footprint of the food crop is. Maybe someone somewhere chopped down a forest to keep people fed or added extra fertilizer to another field to increase yields. Making fertilizer is an extremely energy-intensive, carbon-producing activity. Very often, answering this chain of questions may reveal that biofuels come at a carbon cost greater than the fossil fuels they replace. (Pearce, 339)

Land of Africa

Africa is the biggest hotspot for overseas land acquisitions. Out of the 203 million hectares of farmland, 134 million hectares are in Africa. Most of these land deals came right after the global food crisis form 2007-2008. The World Bank computed that acquisitions totaled almost 10 million hectares in merely four African countries (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, and Sudan – South Sudan included) during the relatively early period of 2004-2009.

Sub-Saharan Africa has over 200 million hectares of unfarmed land “suitable for cropping, non-forested, non-protected, and populated with less than 25 people per square kilometer”. The global surface of unfarmed land is around 445 million hectares.

Many African countries, despite their farmland, are acutely food insecure and depend on aid from the World Food Program (WFP). Ethiopia has received $116million in WFP food aid even while Saudi companies have grown grains on Ethiopian land for Saudi consumption.

One of the biggest and latest issues related to Africa and especially Mozambique (but also Ghana, Nigeria or the Central African Republic) is management and legal regime of the common land. Land grabbing is usually related to various forms of common property over land. Common property is the very first form of regulated property from pre-republican times in Ancient Rome. Even nowadays, most places have commons. (Pearce, 340)

Africa has got most of the land in some form of common property or ownership. Four fifths of the African continent, that is almost 2 billion hectares is owned formally by the state via its sovereignty. There are no legal titles but inhabitants regard these lands as theirs, consider themselves to be the traditional owners of not just a plot, a house or a farm, but of forests, pastures and other such collective value that fall in the domain of the community.

Indeed, pastoralists or forest dwellers and gatherers occupy a lot of the surviving commons on the planet. They spend most of their lives away from urban agglomerations, away from main roads, thus ignoring national state laws and hence state boundaries. They are not outcasts but an integral part of African [national] societies. African politicians, however, consider that “people of the commons are historical leftovers, wild people who need to be tamed and settled, brought within national laws and norms. For their good and for ours,” (Alden Wily for Fred Pearce in “The Landgrabbers. The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth”, Transworld Publishers, London, UK, page 340)

The World Bank has named that land ‘the world’s last great reserve of underused land’, empty plots waiting for ‘development’.

Less water

“We do see a role for biofuels in climate change mitigation,” Maurits van den Berg, an agricultural policy researcher at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, told 2C. “From a social perspective they were associated with land grabbing, but they also create work and business opportunities in agriculture.” In short, there is no simple answer: “It depends on how it’s managed.”

Being a largely water-intensive crop, biofuels can’t be produced in arid regions. “In more humid regions you can have higher yields,” Van den Berg said. “In any case, irrigation of biofuels is not a good idea.”

The industry can also create jobs, according to Valerie Ndaruzaniye, president of the Global Water Institute. “In West-Saharan areas you can use dry lands for energy crops – nothing else can grow there,” she said. “Now we’re talking about privatization of water: if these people have an income, they will have more money to buy water in order to sustain their environment.”

Michael Scoullos, chair of the Mediterranean Region at Global Water Partnership, says there is a major carbon accounting flaw in EU legislation and consequently in international agreements: biofuels used in transport and biomass used for power generation are currently counted as “zero emissions”, which will have “immense” consequences for the environment. This is the key finding of a report published by the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency, a top EU advisory body. The report warned that counting biofuels and biomass as “zero emissions” is wrong because it ignores the emissions that come when the fuels are burned, assuming that this impact is automatically offset when new plants grow. In many cases, these emissions will not be offset because increased demand for land for bioenergy will displace emissions elsewhere.

UN response: the Marrakesh Accords

COP 7 (Marrakesh, October/November 2001) adopted a decision on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) and related issues (Decision 11/CP.7). The rules for LULUCF activities, agreed as part of the Marrakesh Accords, include two main elements: a set of principles to govern LULUCF activities; four-tier capping system limiting the use of LULUCF activities to meet emission targets. It sounds techie, but it is simple in essence.

COP7 in Marrakech, 2001
COP7 in Marrakech, 2001

The threat posed by climate change to the development gains made over recent decades demands an urgent, comprehensive and global response. Since 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has set out a framework for international action to stabilize GHG emissions to prevent dangerous climate change. The UNFCCC recognizes that developed countries have contributed the most to the global accumulation of GHG emissions, while developing countries bear less historical responsibility. This recognition has led to a commitment from developed countries to mobilize finance to help developing countries respond to climate change, and such ‘climate finance’ has become a central issue in international negotiations.

Commitments to deliver climate finance to developing countries are longstanding. Developed countries pledged to deliver finance approaching $30 billion between 2010 and 2012, in the context of a commitment to mobilize $100 billion per year from public and private sources by 2020 in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. These commitments were affirmed in the Cancun Agreements of 2010. Thus, in the wake of COP17 in Cancun, Mexico, the start-funding started to work.

This is where COP21 in Paris kicks in.

In addition, the need to achieve ‘balanced finance’ for adaptation was recognized, with an emphasis on the needs of particularly vulnerable countries, including small-island developing states (SIDSs), least-developed countries (LDCs), and African states. It was in this context that parties agreed to create a new operating entity of the financial mechanism for the UNFCCC.

A new initiative to build climate resilience in the world’s most vulnerable countries was launched in Paris by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and 13 members within the UN system at he very beginning of the Paris Climate Conference.  The new initiative will strengthen the ability of countries to anticipate hazards, absorb shocks, and reshape development to reduce climate risks.

Bringing together private sector organizations, governments, UN agencies, research institutions and other stakeholders to scale up transformative solutions, the SG’s Resilience Initiative will focus on the most vulnerable people and communities in Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries, and African countries.

Over the next five years, the Initiative will mobilize financing and knowledge; create and operationalize partnerships at scale, help coordinate activities to help reach tangible results, catalyze research, and develop new tools.

The Secretary-General’s Climate Resilience Initiative will support the work of partners, such as the Africa Risk Capacity, to ensure that by the time the new climate agreement enters into force in 2020,  over 30 countries are provided with $2 billion in coverage against drought, flood and cyclones,  including $500 million in adaptation financing.  150 million Africans will be indirectly insured.

While much of the attention at Paris is focused on reducing emissions in a bid to keep global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, many climate impacts will continue to increase. Whether they are biodiversity loss, land management, sea level rise and other terrible events, the main big climatic adaptation issue remains poverty.

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