At global summit, farming and land ‘central pillars’ in climate solution

At the two-day Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, food, forestry and agriculture—long viewed as step-children when it came to climate solutions—were recognized as central to whatever progress is going to made in reaching climate goals established in the 2015 Paris accord.

Attendees to conference, organized by California Gov. Jerry Brown, came from cities, states and major companies, representing more than half of the U.S. economy. These leaders are trying to do an end-run around President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and reverse the administration’s actions on climate change before it’s too late to keep warming under 2 degrees celsius.

At the conference, it seemed as if opposition to Trump administration policies had galvanized participants, not unlike what’s happening ahead of the U.S. midterm Congressional elections. As former secretary of state John Kerry said in remarks on the second day of the conference, “While Donald Trump may have pulled out of the Paris agreement, the American people have not.”

Kerry was speaking at an oceans event, where global warming is wreaking havoc on weather patterns and catalyzing ocean acidification, but there was heightened recognition too of what must happen in agriculture and forestry to temper warming. Numerous companies stepped up with pledges to reform their supply chains, to prevent deforestation, but as Ericsson CEO Borje Ekholm said, companies like his own had made numerous climate pledges in the past: “I’m tired of making pledges. We need to take action.”

“I really thought this was inspiring, I’m feeling more hopeful than I ever have,” said Kerry Casareo, vice president of the forest programs at World Wildlife Fund. Her colleague, Melinda Cep, a senior director at WWF in food issues, also said for the first time food, agriculture and forestry had became a “key pillar of the climate conversation.”

Agriculture alone accounts for about a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions; throw in all the related activities in food production from nitrogen fertilizer to animal waste to packaging and food transport, and it rises to a third.

“There’s definitely been more momentum than even a year ago,” said Josette Lewis of Environmental Defense Fund’s sustainable agriculture practice, pointing to work at mainstream commodity groups like the National Corn Growers Association. “Food companies are not going backwards, and in the past year there has been more work translating their commitments to the farm level.”

Forestry has a major climate impact, too, since land cleared for food production and other uses accounts for one-sixth of global greenhouse emissions, with the greatest impact in Indonesia and Malaysia, where forests are lost to oil-palm production, and in sub-saharan Africa and Latin America, where forests give way to livestock and crop production. A recent study in Science found that more than a quarter of deforestation in the world stems from agriculture and industrial activites.

The impact of vanishing forests is magnified further, since once land is cleared, it loses the ability to sequester carbon in the soil. As one of the initiatives coming out of the climate summit, 45 cities across six continents joined the Cities4Forests initiative, “committing to conserve and restore their forests while making residents more aware of the vast benefits of trees.”

Researchers also unveiled an “exponential road map” at the summit, arguing that once progress reaches a tipping point, change can come much more quickly than expected — something underway in renewable energy, for example. Agriculture was held up as one area where that kind of change needs to happen. “Farming and other land use must stop expanding and adopt solutions to store carbon rather than emit it,” the road map said.

Though getting to these goals will be challenging, since the policy changes outlined by that roadmap include scaling back beef production by 2030 and designing subsidies to support sustainable agriculture.

Participants also talked repeatedly about the need to reward practices that build soil carbon, while reducing emissions from the livestock and fertilizer sector, which can be helped by livestock feed practices, precision agriculture, no- and low-till farming and cover crops.

The fear is that time is short, because as climate warms, forests can become a powerful source of emissions, rather than carbon sinks. As permafrost thaws, forest fires ravage landscapes, wetlands are drained and mangrove forests destroyed, these sources could overwhelm any positive human actions, creating what scientists are calling “hothouse Earth.”

With that climate cleaver hanging over the world, a host of commitments were made in the food, agriculture and land sectors to “deliver up to 30 percent of the climate solutions needed by 2030.”

  • A consortium announced $500 million in funding to drive improved land use and forest conservation.
  • Companies serving 60 million meals annually agreed to track the climate impact of the food they serve.
  • A group of 13 venture funds, banks, corporations, foundations, NGOs and universities committed to invest in scientific and technological solutions that will improve soil health.
  • Investors with $5.6 trillion in assets joined a coalition supporting conservation of the Brazil’s Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah, from being depleted for soy and beef production.
  • Unilever and Walmart pledged to support farmer certifications across 60,000 hectares in Malaysia, increasing the sourcing of palm oil in an area they can guarantee is not causing deforestation.
  • Through the Pacific Coast Collaborative, states and cities on the United States’ West Coast committed to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.