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A Marathon Runner’s Guide to Durban

The success that the Climate-smart agriculture movement has had in bringing together adaptation and mitigation realms is a lesson that needs sharing at Durban. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
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déc 8, 2011




by Chase Sova

Angela Merkel said recently in an address to the German Parliament, that “marathon runners often tell you that [the race] gets particularly tough after 35km. But they also say that the whole distance can be completed if you are fully aware at the start of what you are about to do. It’s not the one who starts quickest who is necessarily the most successful, but the one who respects the whole feat.”

Merkel made these comments reflecting on the slow progress being made to tackle the Eurozone debt crisis, but the analogy applies to the climate discussions leading up to Durban. The relative, but unbinding success of COP 16 in Cancun last December has succeeded in fueling another round of high expectations in Durban – expectations that seem to ignore the realities of our global economy and international community.

The major topic of debate, for the sake of variety, is the parties’ ability to arrive at a legally binding agreement on the Bali Action Plan, Cancun Agreements or the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Also weighing in heavily in Durban, as it did in Copenhagen and Cancun, is the refueled discussion of who should be responsible for tackling emissions given the developed world’s historical responsibility and the emerging economies’ increasing contribution to GHGs.

While it seems the discussion at Durban will be firmly fixed on the structure of an agreement, the content will yet again take a back seat. Two major themes, agriculture and adaptation, remain in need the kind of profound attention that only a world stage like Durban can provide. But with the media and negotiators fixated on a “binding way or the highway” mentality, these issues stand to fall victim to a premature, incomplete agreement – a false-start if you will.

How about a seat at the table?
Agriculture’s side-lined position in climate change negotiations represents one of the most profound paradoxes in modern international relations. The sector is home to our world’s most climate-vulnerable populations according to any assessment criteria – geographic, social or environmental. And the lessons we can learn from agriculture, if we’d only engage in the conversation, are seemingly endless.

Small-scale farmers, for example, are the epitome of “think globally, act locally”, as their success or failure has consequences on nearly all sectors of the national and global economy, with food security firmly planted in the foundations of our development. Our continued growth depends on their ability to take appropriate actions in the face of climate change, one acre at a time. Policy solutions that succeed for such an intensely localized sector can most certainly serve as a model for others. We as an international community have a responsibility to provide a policy environment that best enables that bottom-up agricultural revolution to occur. This can only be achieved if agriculture has a legitimate seat at the table.

Agriculture also provides an important example of how adaptation and mitigation can be implemented simultaneously; this in contrast to our tendency to force sometimes artificial distinctions between the two. The recent momentum of climate- smart agriculture is a testament to the success that mitigating practices, such as planting trees or sustainable intensification, can have in bringing about valuable co-benefits such as improved yields and diversification (adaptation through mitigation). By placing strong emphasis on the improvements in farming practices that are happening immediately via mitigation efforts, the conversation becomes less about obligations and more about the value in making climate-smart investments; a lesson the negotiators in Durban shouldn’t take lightly.

Talk about Adaptation
Climate negotiations have traditionally centered on mitigation and legally binding emissions targets. In Copenhagen and Cancun, however, we saw evidence of a rejuvenated adaptation movement taking shape. While the increased interest in adaptation (as well as technology transfer, climate financing, and transparency – also emerging from COP15/16) should be welcomed, it is important that the discourse surrounding adaptation in Durban presents it in an appropriate light.

In previous COPs, adaptation has often been considered the cost of failed mitigation attempts – an unfortunate last ditch effort born out of our inability to reach consensus at the negotiating table. Viewing adaptation as “admitting defeat” can be damaging to global perceptions of both mitigation and adaptation. It assumes (falsely) total failure in negotiations, undermines important, commendable mitigating activities and does not properly reflect the complexity of achieving international top-level consensus on an inherently multi-level problem.

See the United States’ Delegation head in Durban, Dr. Jonathon Pershing, refer to the “unfortunate” need to develop an adaptation framework.

Conversely, viewing adaptation as a truly parallel, complementary climate change response track to mitigation recognizes the historical role of adaptation (we’ve been adapting for millennia – the difference being that today we have better decision-making tools and far greater urgency) and, perhaps more importantly, allows us to properly address climate change’s exacerbating effect on existing development challenges**. The reality is that we will face unavoidable impacts of climate change whether a legally binding document is reached today, or even a decade ago. To save lives, adaptation needs to be firmly centered on the Durban agenda.

**The concept of climate fund ‘additionally’ must be reaffirmed in Durban negotiations. One major slipping in point in Copenhagen and Cancun was the emerging possibility that developed countries could draw off funds from other voluntary coffers like official development assistance (ODA) to meet their Green Climate Fund pledges. To make serious strides towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), climate change adaptation funds will need to go above and beyond existing assistance.

Breaking the cycle
To deny agriculture the attention it deserves, and to fail to appreciate adaptation for what it truly is – both because of the inherent complexities in integrating them in to a tidy, legally binding package – speaks to the dangers, and oversights, that result from choosing structure over content. We are in but the first few kilometers of a legally binding marathon and, as Merkel suggests, we’ll all benefit from “respecting the whole feat”. To classify the negotiations success with “legally binding” and its failure with “anything else” ignores the realities of this complex, mulit-level, “wicked” problem.

Durban and COP is as much about changing minds as it is about building political agreements. Let’s make an effort to break this cycle of unreasonable expectations and failure, and focus on the issues at hand. Slow and steady wins the race.

Chase Sova is a visiting researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and a member of  the CGIAR research program on Climate Change,  Agriculture and Food Security CCAFS – Adaptation to Progressive Climate Change. This story was originally posted on the CIAT-DAPA blog.