Why we must climate-proof the poor in Africa

Katrin Glatzel, Agriculture for Impact.

We call combating climate change a race against time. But who is the clock truly going to run out on? We know that the mega carbon culprits in the developed world will not be the ones to feel the most severe impacts of climate change – rather it will be the countries in the developing world, that have done the least to cause this chaos. New research has just discovered that 39 of the 50 countries least prepared to deal with climate change are in Africa. From 2049, in some areas, production of crops could fall by up to 50 per cent.

When I was last in Ghana and spoke to smallholder farmers reliant on stable weather conditions to feed their families and earn an income, they spoke fearfully of the irregular rainfall patterns that were starting either too early or too late – and getting shorter each time. They have seen their yields steadily diminish, and their parched grains shattering on the mill.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) more than 3 billion people – that is almost half of the current total global population – live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. A functioning agriculture sector is crucial in creating income-generating opportunities that are key to eradicating extreme poverty in developing countries.

So how can global development goals to end hunger and eradicate poverty be met, when agriculture is still fighting to get into the agenda at major climate talks?

Food security goals cannot be met until climate agreements consider agriculture

Policy makers, scientists, NGOs and activists are making their way to the last major climate negotiations before a new international climate change agreement is adopted in Paris in December 2015. What I argue should be running in parallel, not in isolation, is the question of how food systems around the world will build resilience to disasters (which are increasingly attributed to climate change), something that the new sustainable development goals will tackle when they are adpoted, also next year. My concern is that the dots have not yet been connected between these two major political processes.

Historically, the relationship between agriculture and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has been rocky. At both COP17 and COP18, governments stopped short of agreeing to create a work programme for agriculture, which would have initiated a series of activities to further explore and exchange scientific and technical information on agriculture, as well as its impact and implications for climate change. Food security advocates are asking, will agriculture be part of this new 2015 agreement? If not, will the absence of agriculture in a 2015 agreement negatively affect the sector’s ability to access climate funds for agricultural adaptation and mitigation?

We still have relatively little knowledge of the regional dynamics and of the specific consequences for agriculture. Poor countries, in particular, need adaptation measures to cope both with relatively predictable climatic stress and with much less predictable, but more extreme, climatic events. However, building resilience involves not only developing new technologies and farming techniques, but also appropriate economic policies and institutional arrangements.

COP20 could make climate change mitigation in agriculture an opportunity

As we strive to implement change that will help the poorest farmers cope with climate change, an immense opportunity to limit emissions can be taken advantage of at the same time. There are many opportunities for generating mitigation “co-benefits” from agricultural growth and adaptation strategies. This includes efficient pasture management, increased nutrient and water use efficiency and increased use of trees and perennials on farms – all of which will serve the purpose of driving food production whilst controlling carbon emissions. Identifying these approaches is an important component of building a “climate-smart” agricultural approach at country level.

Climate-proofing the fragile food systems in the developing world – particularly in Africa where so many remote populations are ill equipped to deal with climate shocks – should be a major priority for governments and donors concerned with development. Unfortunately, this topic will not be on the table in Lima, but technical meetings of the UNFCCC in June next year may bring about some commitments to helping poor farmers adapt to the changing climate. We must only hope it is not too little, too late.