Why farms may be the new forests
Dec 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
In the war against climate change, peasants are in the front line.
FOR people who see stopping deforestation as the quickest climate-change win, Copenhagen seemed a success. Although there is still work to be done on the initiative known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the deal struck in Copenhagen made it into a real thing, not just an idea. The notion of reducing net deforestation to zero was not explicitly mentioned, but it looks much more credible than it did two years ago.
As well as giving heart to the protectors of trees, this outcome is encouraging for people whose focus is not on forests but on fields. Climate and agriculture matter to each other in several ways. On the downside, farming is a cause of deforestation, and also emits greenhouse gases in its own right-perhaps 14% of the global total. On the upside, agriculture can also dispose of heat-trapping gases, by increasing the carbon content of soils.
And because farmers (unlike say, coal-producers) feel the effects of the changes their activities may be causing, they have a role in adapting to climate change. Farms, particularly marginal ones, are the first to suffer when the climate shifts; increase their resilience and you help a lot of people. Whether the aim is adaptation to climate change or slowing it, there is an obvious need for more research on the benign contributions that agriculture can make. For people who are seized of this need, there was a welcome boost on December 16th when 21 countries pledged $150 billion to a Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases.
One of the attractions of a focus on agriculture is that even poor countries have farms; in some cases credits for carbon newly locked away in their soil may be a more plausible way of attracting money than rewards for low-carbon industrialisation. A more remote possibility is that such countries will earn credits by hosting efforts to pump carbon dioxide out of the air and store it away.
Such “geoengineering” is still seen as far-fetched and in some circles misguided, but a reference to it was made in the Copenhagen documents. It was cited as a possible future direction for the Clean Development Mechanism, which provides credits for carbon-saving projects in poorer countries. In the aftermath of negotiations with a hint of slash-and-burn, new seeds may be taking root.