COP21: What It Means For Agriculture and Global Food Security

By: Nancy Stetson, Special Representative for Global Food Security.

French Foreign Minister Fabius Bangs Down the Gavel After Representatives of 196 Countries Approved a Sweeping Environmental Agreement at COP21 in Paris (State Department Photo)

Last month in Paris, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached consensus on a global climate change agreement that aims to limit the increase in global average temperatures to well below two degrees Celsius while also aiming to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This goal offers hope for farmers and food security — mitigating climate change is crucial if we are to feed the world’s growing population. At the same time, parties’ efforts to meet the targets they set for themselves can be bolstered by urgent mitigation in the agriculture sector.

Climate change and global food security are inextricably linked. Our changing climate impacts agricultural yields.

For example, global wheat production is estimated to fall by six percent for each degree Celsius of further temperature increase. It also impacts where food can be produced, requiring crops like coffee to shift to higher altitudes, and the nutritional content of food — research shows that climate change can make the world’s staple crops less rich in zinc, iron, and protein. Terrestrial agriculture is not the only sector of food production that is under stress from climate change. A higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases the acidity of our oceans, negatively affecting the world’s already stressed fisheries. Water availability will also be impacted under climate change; warmer air temperatures alter rainfall patterns, making the droughts and floods faced by farmers and herders more intense.

When it comes to climate change and agriculture, a warmer world would vastly change the food we eat. At the same time, our global food system contributes to climate change.
Young shepherds look after their sheep as they graze in a wheat farm, in a village in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo)

Agriculture, forestry and other land use is responsible for just under a quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions — mainly from deforestation and agricultural emissions from livestock, soil, and fertilizer and manure management. In fact, the global agricultural sector emits as much greenhouse gases as all of our cars, ships, trains, and airplanes combined. When land-use change from agriculture is accounted for, the environmental impacts are even greater; nearly 40 percent of the Earth’s land is used for the production of crops and livestock, placing stress on the natural resources and ecosystems services on which agriculture depends.

In light of these realities, countries demonstrated at COP21 a desire to take action on adapting agriculture and reducing emissions from farming.

Perhaps more than any global climate change agreement in history, the Paris Agreement highlights the link between climate change and food security, and lays the foundation for more adaptation and mitigation in the agriculture sector.

The preamble of the agreement text specifically recognizes “the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change”. Furthermore, eighty per cent of countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (aka INDCs — the climate actions countries intend to take under the new agreement) reference agriculture, a clear recognition of the important linkages between agriculture and climate change. Similarly, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, agreed to by 193 countries in September 2015, underscores the linkage between climate change and agriculture. In particular, the Agenda targets strengthening capacity for adaptation to climate change as a key component of its goal to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

The Northern Ugandan Agriculture Cooperative Farm in Northwest Uganda, only 60 miles from South Sudan. (USAID)
The time for the global community to step up is now. Increased commitment by a variety of actors is needed to implement plans for low-carbon, climate-resilient agriculture.

Through innovative approaches such as climate-smart agriculture, new technologies, reducing land clearing and deforestation for agriculture, and a commitment to transforming the way we produce food, the agricultural sector can remain resilient and adapt to climate change in such a way that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced. The Paris Agreement and collective outcomes of COP21 offer many opportunities for action — to achieve global food security, we must seize them.

Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.

Read more about climate change and environmental policy in our publication, U.S. Voices on Climate: COP21 and Beyond.