Aziza was in the room
Sometimes at meetings in CARE, we leave one chair at the table empty. That chair represents Aziza, a hypothetical or representative woman on whose behalf CARE works and advocates for an end to poverty, hunger, and gender inequality. I often think that Aziza is a small-scale farmer, working less than 2 hectares of land and struggling to access the resources she needs for a productive, resilient livelihood that enables her to feed her children with adequate, nutritious food.
Increasingly, in addition to the challenges she already faces, Aziza grapples with climate impacts – higher temperatures, shifting seasons, erratic rainfall that arrives late or ends early or barely comes at all or falls in a deluge. These impacts make a difficult livelihood even harder and threaten the already fragile food security in her household.
So when the climate negotiations resumed at COP23 a couple weeks ago, CARE was watching closely the negotiations on agriculture – on Aziza’s behalf. Agriculture has long been a challenging and complex negotiation issue: the sector is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and is also a source of greenhouse gas emissions. We know that we can’t reach the climate goals we need to (especially for people in poverty) if we don’t address emissions in agriculture. And that’s on top of being a source of livelihoods for hundreds of millions, like Aziza, and food security for all.
Countries have been negotiating agriculture in the UNFCCC for six years. In 2011, they couldn’t agree on concrete policy steps, so they decided to “exchange views” on the issue in a “subsidiary body” – like a committee — that addresses scientific and technological issues. They held five workshops to discuss particular issues related to adaptation in agriculture. But when countries began in mid-2016 to discuss what next steps they should take after these workshops, they ran into a brick wall of disagreement, failing to agree on how to move forward in May 2016, November 2016, and May 2017.
Countries disagreed over whether agriculture discussions should focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) or on adaptation. They also differed over whether discussions should remain aimed at scientific and technological issues or should encompass implementation efforts discussed in a different “subsidiary body”. Nearly 90 percent of countries that submitted climate action plans under the Paris Agreement included action in the agriculture sector, so implementation was increasingly a critical issue to address.
When COP23 started, we were cautiously optimistic that countries could reach agreement. There seemed to be more political will than in the past – as negotiators and civil society alike had grown weary of disagreement. And in the end, countries rallied, after late nights and intense negotiations, to reach a successful outcome – not just any outcome but one that reflects a critical step forward in the agriculture negotiations.
Countries set out a way forward to work not just on scientific and technological issues but also implementation questions, in a joint fashion between the two subsidiary bodies. This ensures a comprehensive agenda that will advance learning, which remains important, and enable and catalyze greater action in agriculture, for adaptation and for mitigation.
Countries also agreed on a new set of topics to explore, including issues related to soils and soil health, livestock, and nutrient and manure management (issues which enable a conversation about reducing emissions) as well as assessment of adaptation in agriculture and the socio-economic and food security aspects of climate change in agriculture.
This way forward can provide coherence to policy and practice and is an opportunity for governments to consider developing guidance on good practices or principles for implementation and finance. Guidance developed at the UNFCCC can serve as an overarching policy framework under which governments formulate and implement climate action plans in the agriculture sector.
For Aziza, what also matters is that governments agreed to focus on the issue of agriculture in ways that take food security into account. This will facilitate a holistic conversation about agriculture as more than a sector for climate action. It can also help ensure that the challenges and priorities for people like Aziza, small-scale food producers and women living in poverty and facing chronic hunger, are considered and addressed. It helps ensure that when negotiations resume in May, Aziza is in the room.