by Emily Matthews
In the general sense, nature refers to the physical world, including weather, landscapes, plants and animals . In terms of the meaning of nature for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), it is more targeted, and focuses specifically on forests, agriculture and land-use changes. Together, these three areas contribute nearly a quarter of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, meaning the conversations taking place on nature day of COP26 were vitally important. As the need for land-use change is largely driven by unsustainable forest and agricultural practices (e.g., deforestation, soil degradation and ecosystem damage), we will split these issues into two sections: forests and agriculture .
As forests are able to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, they are key to our efforts in reducing global warming. However, forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate; primarily due to human-driven activities (i.e. deforestation) . As deforestation also releases CO2 into the atmosphere, this practice has a doubly negative effect on our climate .
Historically, negotiations surrounding nature have been largely left to the COP Convention on Biological Diversity, a separate conference to the COP on Climate Change and is scheduled for April 2022. Whilst previous COP negotiations around forests have been positive, they have been met with some scepticism as promises around deforestation have been broken. For example, a United Nations (UN) report last year found that the world had failed to fully meet any of the 20 global goals it set in 2010 to protect biodiversity .
At this year’s COP negotiations, more than 100 world leaders, covering over 90% of the world’s forests, committed to halt deforestation by 2030 . This declaration, known as the ‘Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use’, is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, this declaration has been backed not only by governments, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and Russia, but also by global corporations and financial institutions . Secondly, the declaration also acknowledges the role of Indigenous communities in protecting forests and how they can be a resource in achieving the deforestation goal . Thirdly, it is also an example of how nature-based solutions are now at the forefront of climate negotiations, and that COP26 has been a pivot point for realising that the climate crisis and nature crisis are two intertwined problems .
Another announcement on deforestation at COP26 was the ‘Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Statement’ which aims to support sustainable trade between commodity producing and consuming countries . Sustainable environmental practices aim to meet the needs of humans whilst ensuring long-term sustainability for ecosystems, biodiversity, other environmental resources and livelihoods. The statement was signed by 28 countries and outlines a “roadmap for action” for accelerating sustainable land use in Forests (and agriculture) . Whilst this statement outlines shared goals and objectives to be achieved by the supporting countries, it gives the impression of an initial agreement as there are still clear targets and actions to be set-out and implemented.
The agri-food system – a term which encompasses all the sectors and systems involved in the production, distribution and consumption of food – is estimated to contribute up to 37% of annual GHG emissions and is responsible for large amounts of deforestation .
Despite this significant contribution to the climate crisis, experts in this field felt that negotiations at COP26 had failed to address the agri-food system as a whole, focusing instead on deforestation-free practices [9,10]. This ignores the many other agri-food issues such as cutting meat consumption and food waste. These are disappointing outcomes when, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, 20% of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 could be delivered by climate action in the food system .
Placing agri-food systems at the centre of discussions is not only important for our climate but also for people’s livelihoods and food security. The changing climate places significant strain on agriculture due to increased droughts and pest outbreaks . This is just one of the ways that developing countries are being disproportionately affected by climate change. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 50% of employment is in the agricultural system and produces up to 30% of the region’s GDP [12, 13].
There is therefore a need for developing climate resilience to agricultural practices but also addressing those that are contributing to the climate crisis. A recent UN report found that almost 90% of the $540bn of global agricultural subsidies given to farmers destroy nature and fuel the climate crisis . Financial subsidies have generally encouraged farmers to produce the maximum amount of food possible, but this intensification is at the expense of wildlife and their habitats. For example, the expansion of farmland has been identified as one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss . On Nature day, a ‘Policy Action Agenda’ was released which supports the shift to more climate and nature-friendly farming subsidies. Only 16 countries endorsed the agenda but did include large emitters such as Nigeria, Spain, Switzerland and UAE. Together these countries represent 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture .
Nature day at COP26 needed to keep the goal of 1.5 °C alive, for the sake of its ecosystems and landscapes but also the many benefits it provides to us (e.g., mitigating the effects of climate change, providing food and water security and for a prosperous economy). There were key issues that were not at the forefront of negotiations and agendas have been released without detail or clear targets.
Furthermore, the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ – the agreement reached at the end of COP26 – did not feature the issues surrounding nature and the climate crisis. The agreement ‘emphasised’ the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems but there were no statements on agriculture or preventing the degradation of land.
And so while COP26 has finally shone a spotlight on many issues surrounding nature which can be taken as a step forwards, it feels as though COP26 has failed to put nature at the forefront of the climate crisis. How the COP26 decisions will fuel the negotiations at the second part of COP15 for biodiversity in Kunming, China next year is also unclear… but keep a lookout for ClimaTalk’s coverage on the event!
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