Reflections: Oasis or Mirage?

Last night, COP 22 came to a close. After a week of wishing we could get into the negotiations happening behind closed doors, we had front-row seats to the spectacle: what was sure to be an open-and-closed meeting turned into a boxing match between Bolivia and Brazil.


Of course by front row, I mean the front row of the observers, behind the recognized organizations, behind the delegates. But in the same room!

Delegates spent the day hashing out decision texts. Though the closing meeting was scheduled for 3pm, it kept getting pushed back. At 5:30, the meeting opened suddenly, checked a few easy items off the agenda, and was suspended just as suddenly. Delegates returned to side rooms to work out more decisions, with a promise that they would return at 8pm. 8pm rolled past. Then 9. Then 10.


The delegate from Bolivia.

Finally at 10:30 the delegates made their way back to their seats. The delegates quickly approved one decision and applauded, to which the COP President said “I’m glad to hear you clapping.” He then invited the delegates to move to the next decision. Though the delegates had apparently spent the day negotiating these details, Bolivia objected. Brazil, repeatedly calling the representative of Bolivia his “dear friend,” argued that the proposal was in line with the Paris Agreement and invited Bolivia to reconsider his objections and “follow what you have just read.” Bolivia, in turn, requested clarification from Brazil and objected to creating bad precedent without addressing issues comprehensively. From there, the floor devolved as delegates from different countries took sides. Finally, after India (who usually sides with Brazil) sided with Bolivia, the president called a 5-minute recess to allow delegates to speak in small groups to try to work it out.

Are you confused? Good, because that’s how we felt! We really had no idea what they were fighting about, or why, or why they had spent all week negotiating this text only to disagree at midnight on the last night. We also felt exhilarated! Finally, after a week at an international negotiation, we got to see Nations throw down!

After twenty minutes, the COP President decided their 5-minutes were up and called delegates back to their seats. Bolivia requested more time “amongst the dear friends” to work this out. While Brazil and Bolivia chatted, the COP was able to check a few more easy things off the agenda. Finally, around 1:15am, the President turned back to Brazil and Bolivia.

Brazil, observing that they still felt like the original decision was the right one, agreed, in the “spirit of compromise” to kindly request the Parties to ask the Subsidiary Body of Implementation to take up the matter in the 47th session rather than the 46th.

So here’s where we finally understand what’s happening, and it’s fascinating…or totally frustrating. This whole fight was about whether a sub-committee should talk about the issue in May or December of 2017. They weren’t disagreeing about an issue at all – only when the issue should be talked about.

It was one of those odd moments of clarity – where all of a sudden the entire world zooms out and you can see all the pieces, just for a moment – then it slips away again. As all of this back-and-forth was filtering to me through a translator speaking through a crackling headset, I realized politics really is high school all over again – and that isn’t bad, it’s just something we have to recognize. We have to recognize the way people work together is only amplified on the political scale and further exacerbated on the international scale. I always thought it became somehow simpler and more dignified once ambassadors are talking, but that is not the case. You have to be the caricature of your own Nation, for better or for worse.

So what came out of this COP? Procedures. The Paris Agreement came into effect 4 years sooner than anyone expected, and they weren’t ready for it. So they had to spend this meeting talking about how they are going to talk about things under the Paris Agreement. Fascinating and frustrating.

The good news is, the fire is lit. In all of the dignitary and diplomat speeches throughout the week, one theme shone through: the rapid ratification of the Paris Agreement was a mandate to get to work. In my return to America, where the next four years are likely to be a struggle, I will carry the flame with me, as these delegates will carry it with them to their Nations. For we are not alone.

Landscape Leaning in Landuse

Agriculture, the sector humans depend on the most,farm1 is also the sector most impacted by climate change. Pests and disease are spreading to new areas. Sea levels rise and contaminate fresh water sources. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, and cyclones are increasing in number and severity, destroying crops before harvest year after year. Increasing temperatures exacerbate desertification. But every continent, nation, ethnicity, indeed every farmer, has different crops, goals, values, and traditions associated with their land. How can this variability be united by a common scheme under the UNFCCC?

This week, agriculture events at COP 22 have focused on a new farm3 landuse management scheme that has the potential to achieve this goal: landscapes. Rather than making decisions based on a single parcel of land, landscape management takes into account the surrounding ecosystem in order to identify the best practices for the parcel. These best practices could include crop selection, soil and water management schemes, fallow techniques and plantings, buffer zones, and cooperative management techniques such as agroforestry. By tailoring agriculture techniques to the ecosystem, crops are more likely to be resilient to climate variability, less likely to require expensive inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and less likely to deplete resources. This technique also empowers indigenous and local communities because their traditional knowledge about the landscape often proves more applicable than modern intensive and chemical-laden agricultural techniques.

At a global climate action dialogue, UN officials, Agriculture Ministers, and NGOs discussed the potential consequences of using landscape management to address climate change. The first panel introduced ecosystem approaches for increased resilience. Jeff Seabright, Chief Sustainability Officer of Unilever, said that that landscape level approach has the potential to truly link agriculture and food security with sustainable development because it fundamentally incorporates an integrated approach. He pointed to the Africa Palm Oil Initiative and Global Agribusiness Alliance as examples of private initiatives to utilize this integrated approach. Farrukh Khan, Program Manager on Climate Finance in the Office of the UN Secretary General, recommended encouraging public-private partnerships to ensure all economic actors who make day-to-day decisions are part of the necessary change, and pointed to the UN’s A2R Initiative to use as a framework.

The second panel discussed integration across the landscape and “value chain” (i.e. the production and distribution chain). Craig Hanson, Global Director of Food, Forests, and Water at the World Resources Institute, identified three unused “levers” in the value chain that the world needs to take advantage of to achieve sustainable development in agriculture: (1) food loss; (2) livestock; and (3) restoration of degraded lands. On food loss, he observed that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost. He asked for parties to collaborate on a WRI initiative to build a $1 billion fund to address food loss. On livestock, he pointed out that technology to help reduce emissions exists, but it is currently too costly and poorly distributed. On restoration, he advised that by restoring degraded land, we could grow more food (without clearing more land) or grow more trees (“the best technology to sequester carbon”). He pointed to a French initiative as a preeminent example.

The third panel addressed sustainable water management farm2 (2)in agriculture. Panelists here all pointed out that agriculture is the largest consumer of water, yet agriculture issues are often considered separately from water issues. They also said that insufficient research has been done on the link between water management and land management through agriculture. Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that the USDA and NASA are expanding the availability of data from remote sensing for use in the developing world, for example with Servir West Africa. Eduardo Mansur, Director of the Land and Water Division at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, recommended using their SDG6 framework as a model to improve reliability, availability, and frequency of data sources for water in agriculture. Meanwhile, Sharon Dijsma, Minister for the Environment of the Netherlands, pointed to their “More Crop per Drop” program as a model for improving water efficiency in agriculture.

The last panel discussed climate finance for agriculture and food security and featured speakers from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the two primary organizations responsible for distributing funds under the UNFCCC. Both organizations essentially said that more research into effective management techniques is necessary, and after the data is available, fund distribution pathways will need to be established.

Landscape management has a lot of promise, but has yet to be fully developed. As SBSTA develops concrete agriculture goals at SBSTA 46 and 47, it should look to this methodology as a potential managements scheme that can be applied consistently onto the variable landscape of our world.

A New Dawn

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, COP 22 President Salaheddine Mezouar, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa wait to greet arriving dignitaries to the first meeting of the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, COP 22 President Salaheddine Mezouar, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa wait to greet arriving dignitaries to the first meeting of the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement.

One year ago, parties to the UNFCCC signed the Paris Agreement, expecting it to come into force over the next four years as individual nations went through the slow process of ratification. To everyone’s surprise, the requisite number of nations ratified it, and as of November 4, the Paris Agreement officially came into force. Today, the parties to the UNFCCC held the first meeting under the Paris Agreement. At the opening ceremony, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that this historic approval marks “a new dawn for global cooperation on climate change.” All of the speakers at the ceremony emphasized that this rapid endorsement demonstrates that the world is ready to move forward together to address climate change.

The shadow of US President-elect Donald Trump occasionally threatened to cloud the day’s proceedings, but the new dawn continued to shine through. President François Hollande of France

People's Daily

President François Hollande of France

called for consistency and perseverance to work towards the goals of the Agreement, which he called irreversible in law, in fact, and in the minds of the citizens of the world. He specifically thanked President Obama for his crucial role in obtaining agreement in Paris, and then called out the United States, stating that “the largest economic power in the world and the second largest greenhouse gas emitter must respect the commitments they have undertaken.”


Jonathan Pershing, U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change

The conversation about U.S. participation in the Agreement continued throughout the day. Jonathan Pershing, the Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, focused on market forces that have made fossil fuels unsustainable. For example, he pointed out that the U.S. currently has over 2 million renewable energy jobs compared to 65,000 coal miners. Although refusing to speculate on the future administration, he hinted that a President focused on jobs might find the renewable energy sector more attractive. He also observed that cities and local governments are already adapting to natural disasters, whether they were calling it adaptation to climate change or not.

In a heavily attended panel on U.S.

Senior Advisor to the President Brian Deese and Secretary of Natural Resources for Vermont Deb Markowitz

Senior Advisor to the President Brian Deese and Secretary of Natural Resources for Vermont Deb Markowitz

Climate Action, Deb Markowitz (Secretary of Natural Resources for Vermont) addressed the tension head-on, theorizing that many people were there to find out just what effect the Trump administration would have. The panelists’ answer? Not as much as one might fear. Brian Deese (Senior Advisor to the President overseeing Climate Change and Energy Policy) emphasized that the Clean Power Plan was promulgated in response to a mandate from the US Supreme Court holding the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases. Even President Trump cannot reverse the Supreme Court’s holding, nor can he eliminate the Clean Power Plan without backing in science and law. Markowitz, meanwhile, focused on state action. She observed that state actions drove U.S. climate response during the Bush years, and pointed out that states from Texas to Vermont are deploying renewable energy projects.

As President Hollande observed today, our world is in turmoil – a setting in which “those who trade in fear are allowed to thrive.” In this world, many have come to doubt what the international community can do. But the Paris Agreement is a beacon of hope in the night, and “a promise of hope cannot be betrayed. It must be fulfilled.” With, or without, the President of the United States.

Bonn Challenge Takes First Steps

rainforestThe Bonn Challenge is a global initiative to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020, and 350 million by 2030. So far, 38 countries have pledged to restore 124.32 million hectares in order to achieve this goal. The challenge now is holding these nations to their commitments and ensuring the necessary financing mechanisms are in place to support their efforts.

A partnership of several organizations, including the Global Canopy Programme and Unlocking Forest Finance, has initiated three pilot programs in South America to test a landscape-focused approach. A landscape restoration project focuses on the drivers of deforestation – generally, agriculture and poverty – and works with local communities to manage land uses in a way that meets the needs of the community and the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.

The pilots focus on finding private investors to build disneypermanent markets for premium crops, rather than securing government and NGO grants, because these partnerships will be more permanent and sustainable than a government-sponsored program. For example, Walt Disney has partnered with local coffee farmers in San Martin, Peru to grow sustainably harvested coffee at a fair price for exclusive sale at Disney World. This guarantees the farmers a premium market that ensures their continued participation in the program.

In addition, today the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the launching of its new website for tracking news, analysis, resources, and updates on forest landscape restoration projects around the world. The website so far provides detailed analysis on policies, successes, and failures in 42 different nations. It will also soon offer a “Bonn Challenge Barometer,” which will quantifiably track forest landscape restoration successes in support of the Bonn Challenge and provide resources to help address obstacles to progress.

Land Use and Methane

As the COP negotiations increasingly look to agriculture, forestry, and other land uses as tools to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, methanogenesis – the biological production of methane by single-celled organisms – must be taken into account. This methane production is very similar to fermentation, the process used to produce alcohol. In fermentation, when yeast is denied access to oxygen, the yeast produces alcohol as a waste product. Humans do this too when exercising, producing lactic acid (this is why your muscles burn when you are out of breath). In methanogenesis, when a certain type of bacteria is denied access to oxygen, the bacteria will produce methane as a waste product.


This is a serious concern to land use managers. Rice production is one of the largest human sources of methane because of the low-oxygen content of the water in submerged rice paddies. To make matters worse, as the climate warms the bacteria in rice paddies produce higher levels of methane.

Another land use concern is the construction of hydroelectric dams. Hydroelectric dams are often viewed as a viable renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels, but because of the low-oxygen content of the water of the reservoir, organic material that gets caught at the dam decomposes to produce methane. Some even argue that hydroelectric dams are a net cause, not a solution to, climate change.

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland's Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland’s Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

On top of all this, a recent study discovered a new methane-producing group of organisms that live in wetlands, lake and river estuary sediments, mud volcanoes, and deep-sea vents. This discovery revealed that humans still have much to learn about the carbon cycle. And this is not to mention all of the other sources of methane, both human (e.g. energy and waste production, livestock) and natural (e.g. wetlands, oceans, termites).


Fortunately, there are ways to manage these concerns. Rice paddies can be drained mid-season to kill off the methane-producers, and alternative fertilizers have been shown to reduce methane emissions. Hydroelectric dams can be managed to reduce organic matter in reservoirs, both by harvesting trees and other plant matter before the reservoir is flooded and by capturing organic matter farther upstream before it reaches the reservoir. Finally, researchers have also discovered methane-consuming bacteria that could play an important role in the reduction of methane emissions. Land use managers must consider these methane-control techniques as we move to address climate change.