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Agricultural Advances at COP28: Grounds for Optimism Amidst the Overlooked Urgency for Emissions Reduction in Agriculture

How did COP28 address agriculture and climate change?

The headline outcome of COP28 was the agreement to phase down fossil fuel usage - a significant step forward in global climate policy. Equally noteworthy, however, was the attention given to sustainable agriculture's role in climate change mitigation and the need for its adaptation to a changing climate. The food, agriculture and water side of COP28 was headlined by the COP28 UAE Declaration on Agriculture, Food Systems and Climate Action (the Declaration) which was endorsed by 152 countries.

This declaration recognized the increasing vulnerability of agriculture and food systems to climate change, highlighting the escalating threat to their resilience. Regrettably, this declaration did not directly address the substantial emissions from agriculture, nor the low cost of mitigating these.

The signatories of the declaration laid out several objectives, such as:

  1. Scaling up adaptation and resilience activities through financial and technical support, while also conserving, protecting, and restoring nature.
  2. Strengthening integrated water management in agriculture and food systems to ensure sustainability and reduce community impacts.
  3. Maximizing climate and environmental benefits associated with agriculture and food systems by enhancing soil health, biodiversity, and shifting to sustainable production and consumption approaches.

The signatories also expressed their intention to integrate agriculture and food systems into National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and other related strategies by COP30. Furthermore, they aimed to orient policies and public support to promote activities that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and bolster resilience, productivity, livelihoods, and water efficiency, while reducing food and ecosystem loss and making use of local and indigenous knowledge.

What was announced during the COP28 Food, Agriculture and Water Day?

Following the declaration, the Food, Agriculture, and Water Day at COP28 saw further announcements aimed at increasing climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture. 

  • The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4Climate) announced an increased $3.4 billion in aggregated funding for climate-smart food systems and agriculture, as well as 27 new innovation sprints. This funding is intended for addressing climate change and global hunger together.
  • A complement to the Declaration, the Call to Action for Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature, and Climate was signed by over 200 diverse non-State actors  including farmers, cities, businesses, financial institutions, civil society and philanthropies which commits signatories to take ten priority actions to transform food systems. 
  • A Convergence Initiative On Food Systems And Climate was announced to support countries in integrating agriculture and food systems into their climate action plans. 
  • The Agrifood Sharm-El Sheikh Support Program, a three-year initiative, was announced by CGIAR, the COP28 UAE Presidency, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This program is designed to help countries unlock finance and support for farmers, food producers, small agribusinesses, and local communities.
  • The COP28 Food-Agri-Climate National Action Toolkit for National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) And Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) was announced by the FAO, WWF, the NDC Partnership, Climate Focus, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and the German government which provides guiding principles for governments to enhance their climate policy frameworks.
  • A new coalition was formed by Brazil, Cambodia, Norway and Sierra Leone, called the Alliance Of Champions For Food Systems Transformation (ACF), which focused on redirecting policies, practices, and investment priorities to achieve improved outcomes for food systems, benefiting people, nature, and the climate for member countries. 
  • Initiatives to address water were also announced, including the COP Ministerial Dialogue On Building Water-Resilient Food Systems, which aims to assist countries with integrating water and food into their NDCs and NAP in time for COP30.

What did COP28 not do for agriculture’s impact on the climate?

As well as largely overlooking the broad issue of agricultural emissions, COP28 also neglected the issue of the necessity of mitigating agricultural methane emissions in particular. Reducing methane emissions, a short-lived climate pollutant, has the potential for rapid climate mitigation.

Methane emissions have consistently been a focal point in previous COPs, highlighted by the introduction of the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) at COP26 two years ago. At COP28, the GMP experienced a substantial boost with over $1 billion pledged towards methane mitigation efforts, alongside the announcement of new members. Notably, Nigeria has stepped up as a GMP champion, a development of particular significance considering its status as Africa's largest rice producer, with rice cultivation being a major contributor to methane emissions.

Disappointingly, efforts to reduce methane emissions at COP28 were predominantly directed towards the oil and gas industry, overlooking the agricultural sector. This represents a missed opportunity, particularly in the context of rice cultivation. Addressing methane emissions from rice agriculture presents substantial opportunities for mitigation, offering both cost-effectiveness and food security benefits. Within agriculture, rice cultivation holds the highest relative potential for swift and economical methane reduction in addition to crucial humanitarian benefits for many countries which are vulnerable to food shortages.

Why does sustainable rice need to be on the COP menu?

Rice, a dietary staple for roughly half of the global population, is pivotal in providing sustenance to humanity. Its cultivation sustains the livelihoods of over 1 billion people globally, mostly small-scale farmers. Notably, 94% of global rice production originates from low- or middle-income countries. The rice sub-sector has intricate connections with food insecurity, poverty, and climate change which necessitates urgent change. Contemporary rice cultivation produces comparable emissions to that of the aviation sector and uses 70 million cubic metres of water annually, yet changes in its cultivation practices can dramatically offset these uses leading to increased climate resilience, decreased emissions, lowered water use and increased food security. Additionally, it's important to acknowledge that incorporating Conservation Agriculture (CA) practices, especially when combined with SRI principles, into rice-based agroecosystems can significantly improve soil carbon storage. Leveraging the carbon sequestration potential of the more than 160 million hectares under rice cultivation worldwide could contribute to achieving the 1.5-degree target outlined in the Paris Agreement.

What is being done to address rice’s environmental impact?

The Sustainable Rice Landscape Initiative (SRLI) consortium, formed by WBCSD, UNEP, FAO, SRP, GIZ and IRRI, aims to enhance resource use efficiency and reduce climate change and environmental impacts by transforming rice-based landscapes sustainably. Within this consortium is the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), a global alliance with over 100 institutional members dedicated to developing sustainable production standards, indicators, and incentive mechanisms for widespread adoption of best practices throughout rice value chains. The WBCSD recently launched the RICE+ Hub to convene private sector stakeholders and facilitate rice value chain collaboration for collective actions and investments to achieve sustainable and regenerative rice-based landscapes. GIZ, among other rice-related projects, implemented the Thai Rice NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action) program in Thailand which reduced GHG emissions with the equivalent of 915,000 ton CO2eq by the end of 2022.

Several key rice-producing regions globally have initiated large-scale transformations in rice production. Vietnam is embarking on the sustainable development of one million hectares of high-quality, low-emission rice production by 2030. China's Methane Emission Control Action Plan focuses on rice-related mitigation potential. In India, the adoption of Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR) is increasing and around one million farmers are embracing the agroecological practices of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Indonesia is witnessing a rise in SRI research and implementation, while Pakistan has developed a system combining Conservation Agriculture (CA), SRI, and organic farming. In West Africa, the RICOWAS project is the second phase of a 13-countries project for disseminating SRI practices while, on a continental scale, around 40 African countries are formulating national strategies for achieving rice self-sufficiency.

Low-emission, low-input, high-yield SRI rice, being grown in the Philippines

Despite significant progress, challenges persist

Several significant challenges hinder the widespread adoption of sustainable rice practices. These challenges include the fragmentation of rice production at the farm level, insufficient technical support for farmers, a lack of assistance during the transition phase, and limited infrastructure for water control. This impedes the adoption of water management practices with substantial methane mitigation potential like alternate wetting and drying (AWD). Finally there is an issue of labour, where some innovative practices require farmers to  transplant within the same period to maximise the genetic potential of the rice plants. This causes a temporary increase in labour demands across all farms that use these innovative methods. Although mechanisation is making progress in addressing many of these issues, it remains inaccessible to some small-scale farmers.

Moreover, challenges encompass the uncertainties and barriers associated with the voluntary carbon market, a lack of private sector investments, and guidance gaps in setting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets. Notably, climate mitigation actions within the rice sub-sector are absent in over 80% of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of rice-producing countries, indicating that a significant part of the public sector has not fully recognized the considerable mitigation potential of sustainable rice production.

Because of these challenges, the transition to sustainable rice production is slow. For instance, SRI methods, which offer co-benefits addressing food insecurity, poverty, water use and climate change, are currently implemented on only about 4% of the total rice-harvested area.

SRI-2030 and the Sustainable Rice NDC Alliance

SRI-2030, a UK-based charity, focuses on upscaling sustainable rice practices, primarily through advocating for SRI and supporting collaborative efforts within the rice sector. This year, SRI-2030 launched the Sustainable Rice NDC Alliance to bring together countries with rice-related commitments in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). In fact, more than 30 countries include rice in their NDCs and 13 countries specifically listed SRI methods as a mitigation and/or adaptation option. Encouraging more countries to commit to sustainable rice production in their NDCs would channel resources toward actionable strategies benefiting farmers, consumers, and the environment. 

As the next round of NDC submissions is slated for 2025, there is a significant opportunity for governments to officially commit to the sustainable production of this crucial staple food, and, for those that already have rice-related commitments, to increase ambitions. This alignment with the commitments made at COP28 will not only enhance food security but also contribute to the reduction of methane emissions while improving farmers’ livelihoods and optimising water-use.

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