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Will the Long Over-Due Inclusion of Food Systems Come to Our Climate Rescue?

COP28 calls for sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems for an equitable global transition.

COP28 closed as it opened: with an unprecedented focus on agriculture and food. On day two of the conference, 134 countries representing 70 percent of global productivity endorsed the UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. Clearly stating the importance of the agri-food system (i.e. from farm to table to waste bin) for achieving the Paris Agreement goals, the signatories pledged to incorporate the agri-food system into key policy plans such as Nationally Determined Contributions by 2025.

A series of breakthroughs then followed, including multibillion-dollar designated donations from some major states and foundations, a global roadmap for sustainable food systems by FAO, and a record number of over 600 related side events during the two-week long assembly. Attention reached its high on the last thematic day — the first time that food and agriculture was featured as a daily theme at any COP. By the end of the conference, the number of signatories to the UAE Declaration increased to 159, making it the most widely endorsed declaration of this COP, and food made into the final decisions of the parties.

This is a historic movement as the food system cannot endure further oversight for the sake of people and the climate. The latest UN figures shows a 20 percent increase in the population suffering from hunger around the world between 2019 and 2022; while over the past two years farmers suffered from an average estimated income loss of nearly 16 percent due to changes in weather. And global yields could decline by up to 30 percent by 2050 in the absence of effective climate change adaptation. At the same time, the already-stretched food systems are responsible for one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and therefore could potentially “fill gaps to 2030” as we just saw the global average temperature rise by 1.4°C over pre-industrial levels according to the World Meteorological Organization in their warning on day one of COP28.

Those understandings formed the basis of the UAE Declaration (Fig 1), which also indicates two emerging mindset shifts in the international climate community when it comes to agriculture and food. First, while adaptation and resilience remain as the top priority for the sector, its profound potential to drive powerful and innovative responses to climate change is explicitly acknowledged at beginning of the Declaration (albeit absent from the final official decisions of COP28). Second, while reiterating the need to safeguard the basic interests of vulnerable populations, the Declaration also recognizes the potential of climate actions to unlock shared prosperity for all, such as enabling farmers to increase and diversify incomes. In the end, the Declaration listed maximizing climate and environmental benefits associated with agri-food systems as one of the transition goals.

Figure 1: Core Elements of the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action

Source: RMI

Such positive mindset shifts may bring positive outcomes by unlocking synergies to mobilize more resources and participation. It also marks gradual improvement in the understanding of a just and equitable transition, which has been a cornerstone of the Declaration and indeed the whole conference. RMI’s recent report The Rural Equitable Climate Transition toward Carbon Neutrality and Shared Prosperity illustrates a “people-centered and development-oriented” rural equitable climate transition framework, which also emphasizes maximizing the benefits of climate action in agriculture and rural areas to improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities (Fig. 2). It highlights the systemic and tailored implementation of a sectoral approach to climate change, such as reducing food loss and waste, optimizing agricultural production patterns and technologies, green circular agriculture, and vertical agriculture, not only to reduce emissions, but also to help increase yields and incomes, and maximize social and environmental benefits.

Figure 2. Elements of Carbon-Neutral and Equitable Transition in Rural Areas

Source: The Rural Equitable Climate Transition toward Carbon Neutrality and Shared Prosperity, RMI

To accelerate the transition, the Declaration emphasized the essential role of policy and financial instruments and the resolution to accelerate innovation. This complements the findings from RMI’s report in the case of China. By establishing a Rural Equitable Climate Transition Index, which cross-examined the current state and the potential for climate actions and socioeconomic development of the rural areas in each province of China, the report affirms the critical role of sound policy guidance and financial support in accelerating low-carbon agricultural development. Improving the overall environment for innovation and investment in rural areas, and fostering innovation on market mechanisms, business models, and technical solutions for agri-food systems and rural livelihood is key to attracting social capital and securing a long-term sustainable transition. Examples include green premiums for agricultural products, sectoral policy coordination, piloting and scaling of climate-smart agriculture technologies, and more.

In addition, RMI’s report zooms in on rural energy transition and natural carbon sinks, which can also help improve the well-being of the agricultural population. For example, the index shows that the potential for renewable energy generation in rural areas of most Chinese provinces is tens or even hundreds of times that of the local energy consumption, and this is particularly the case for relatively less-developed regions. If properly developed, renewable energy generated in rural areas could not only secure clean energy demand in both rural and urban areas, but also potentially benefit rural communities by bringing investment opportunities of up to multi-trillion RMB. This may in turn boost local businesses, provide diversified jobs, create additional income for farmers, and improve the infrastructure, social services, and environment of rural communities. It could also narrow regional development gaps.

The index further shows that many of the relatively less well-off rural areas in China tend to feature richer wind, solar, and agricultural biomass resources along with higher food output, higher agricultural energy consumption, and higher emissions intensity (Fig. 3). Therefore, it is worth exploring the coupling of agricultural energy efficiency, electrification, and clean energy technologies with local renewable energy development, which could help facilitate the transition of both agri-food systems and energy systems while also improving agricultural modernization and production efficiency. Admittedly, special attention should be paid to the cost affordability and overall economics, particularly for those less well-off areas. Solutions must be tailored to local agricultural structure and other specific conditions.

Figure 3: Energy Consumption Per Unit of GDP of Primary Industries and Its Emission Intensity by Province, China, 2020.

Source: The Rural Equitable Climate Transition toward Carbon Neutrality and Shared Prosperity, RMI

In fact, the transition of agri-food and energy systems are closely intertwined. Latest calculations suggest that agri-food systems account for at least 15 percent of global fossil fuel use, while energy consumption accounts for at least 25 percent of the emissions from agri-food systems. Energy transition could play a key role in the agri-food system transition, and has the potential to advance equity through productivity improvement and rural community empowerment. RMI has been endeavoring to accelerate energy transition and climate actions in agri-food systems through efforts in rural renewable deployment; agricultural electrification; decarbonization of petrochemical, transport, and logistic industries; clean heating and cooling initiatives; bioenergy utilization from agriculture and other organic wastes; and other approaches throughout the agri-food supply chain.

“Despite challenges in the implementation, the UAE Declaration highlights the key role of agri-food systems in climate action, and presents new opportunities for the global climate actions and equitable transition,” says Ting Li, the managing director of RMI and chief representative of RMI China. “In response to the Declaration’s call for actions from non-state actors, we will continue to support the relevant goals and actions, particularly around enabling and enhancing synergies, links, and collaborations between agri-food and energy systems, in a bid to advance an equitable global transition towards climate neutrality and shared prosperity.”