Ag a Focus at Paris Climate Talks

OMAHA (DTN) – Why should an average commodity farmer care about what is going on at the Paris climate talks?
“The more severe the climate change is – the higher the increase in temperature is – the more severe the impact is going to be on farm income,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday in an interview with DTN/The Progressive Farmer.
Vilsack points to a recent Economic Research Service report, which showed projected declines in production in most commodities around the country from higher temperatures. Climate change is going to hurt farm income in some parts of the country without adaptation and mitigation, he said. (To read the full ERS report, visit…)
American farmers should also care about the talks, which are taking place Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, because of the various commitments the Obama administration, private companies or other groups will make to lower agriculture’s carbon footprint in the future.
Vilsack will be one of multiple cabinet officials joining President Barack Obama in Paris to push for an aggressive global deal that Obama sees as cementing a legacy in addressing climate change. Vilsack will travel to Brussels, Belgium, and Paris to take part in the United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP 21. He’ll meet with France’s minister of agriculture, as well as the European Union agricultural commissioner. Vilsack said he will also address U.S. negotiators and encourage them to finalize a global deal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The White House is championing its plan to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28% below 2005 levels over the next decade. The White House’s Clean Power Plan, however, is under attack in Congress and in the courts as more than half the states are suing to block it.
Without a push to cut emissions globally, scientists say the planet is on a trajectory to see temperatures increase 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. A successful agreement in Paris would translate into a down payment by countries to curb carbon emissions enough to slow down the increase in temperature. The commitments proposed by the 170 countries participating in the U.N. talks won’t be enough to meet the goal of keeping the temperature from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) – the overall goal countries have committed to eventually achieving.
In Paris, Vilsack will moderate a panel as part of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, of which the U.S. is a founding member last year. The alliance’s goal is to get more focused efforts by governments and private groups to work globally on reducing agricultural emissions and improve adaptation strategies for farmers.
“So it gives us a chance to sort of contribute to the conversation, to put a marker down that climate is going to impact agriculture and that, in turn, is going to impact global food security,” Vilsack said. “That could slow down the progress that we have seen in the last decade or so in reducing the amount of global food insecurity.”
The number of people deemed “food insecure” in 2009 was just over 1 billion people and had been on the rise, Vilsack said. The number of people the United Nations classifies as food insecure has fallen to about 825 million. “So we’re making progress, but there’s a concern that a changing climate may slow that progress down,” he said.
Over the next week, Vilsack will help launch a new global food security report that takes a look at the stability of food production and access to food around the world. The report will forecast risks based on population changes, current food production and the impacts of climate change regionally and globally. These factors will reduce production in some areas, increase production in other areas, as well as affect prices, transportation infrastructure and food safety.
Through agricultural practices, farms sequester or prevent the emissions amounting to about 60 million tons of carbon annually. Vilsack and the administration will also commit the U.S. to double U.S. agriculture’s sequestration or emission reductions to 120 million tons saved annually over the next decade.
If those numbers are realized, Vilsack said agriculture would effectively factor into roughly 2% of the 26 to 28% of emission reductions the administration seeks to achieve by 2025.
“Obviously, the rest of the economy has not been as focused on this as agriculture has been, so we are going to see many aspects of the economy where we are going to see more rapid declines,” Vilsack said.
Globally, agriculture accounts for about 14% of emissions. The percentage of agricultural emissions is lower in the U.S. because the U.S. economy is heavy in industry, energy and transportation. In underdeveloped countries, agriculture accounts for a higher percentage of emissions.
Vilsack will talk up the work at USDA focusing on 10 areas where programs are geared toward specific goals in addressing climate for both agriculture and forestry. (To learn more about USDA’s plan to help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners respond to climate change, visit…)
Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, a former president of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, is in Paris as well this week to talk at various side events about three pillars being pushed by some agricultural leaders in the U.S. to help deal with climate change. The goal right now in the U.S. is to get everyone active in agriculture to play a role.
“The reason we are going to COP 21 is because we want agriculture to be recognized for what they bring to the table,” Yoder said at a recent forum in Minneapolis. “Instead of looking at agriculture and farmers as the culprit for all of these different things, we think there are solutions in agriculture.”
The alliance is championing intensified agricultural production on land already in use as a way to avoid putting more environmentally sensitive lands into production.
“Farmers have to do things in a way they can produce food, feed, fiber and energy, and do it in a way that is efficient so they can farm another day,” Yoder said.
The alliance also backs resiliency efforts with a heavy emphasis on soil health. Farmers are talking more about soil health in the United States than they ever have before, so that’s helpful, Yoder noted. Resiliency, though, needs to be measured and metered.
“We have to figure out ways to prove we’re climate smart. Metrics are needed to measure productivity with emissions,” Yoder said.
Then, there is the mitigation pillar. That’s the tough one. Yoder said the focus on intensification and resiliency needs to be highlighted to get U.S. farmers to talk about or focus on climate mitigation.
Marc Sadler, an adviser on risk, markets and agriculture at the World Bank, said U.S. agricultural efforts on climate mitigation are only incremental when more systemic, transformational changes are needed. If countries don’t deal with mitigation strategies regarding farm production, farming will eventually account for 70% of the global emissions ceiling that scientists say the planet needs to stay under to avoid that 3.6-degree-F increase in temperature. Those agricultural emissions estimates also don’t factor in the land-use changes such as deforestation that could occur as countries push to grow more food.
“If you want a driver for change, then there it is,” Sadler said. “Because the reality is every other (industry) sector is doing something about it.”
Sadler said he believes U.S. farmers are increasingly changing their perspectives on climate change. He joked that just a few years ago, bringing up the topic at a farm meeting in the Midwest would get a guy run out of the meeting. “Now, everyone is nodding and the farmer is saying, ‘yeah, what are we doing about that?’” he said.
Sadler sees future regulatory pushes and corporate commitments as the main drivers in agriculture to get more emission reductions out of farms. For farmers, they have to be shown how climate solutions are going to make money, save money and save time.
“But we have to get away from the emotional rhetoric that is just clogging that conversation,” Sadler said.
Sadler also said the world food map is going to look very different in 2050 and beyond. U.S. agriculture is going to see the effects of warmer temperatures and long-term depletion of groundwater in parts of the country. “The U.S. won’t be exporting 35% of global grains in 2050. You are running out of water. You are so far over your own regional boundaries, you won’t be there,” Sadler said.