What Durban means for EU agriculture

Agriculture, uniquely, has a dual role in climate change discussions. It faces significant adaptation challenges as global temperatures rise and there is a greater frequency of extreme weather events. But it also has the potential to help mitigate climate change through reducing emissions and removing them through carbon sequestration.

In this post, I ask what the implications of the outcome of the Durban UNFCCC climate conference might be for EU farming and agricultural policy.

Agriculture and EU emission targets – where we stand

Agriculture is included in the accounting for the EU’s Kyoto Protocol emission reduction targets for the period 2008-2012 and in the Climate and Energy Package (CEP) 2020 target of a 20% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions over the 1990 base year.

How farming might be affected by these targets is up to the individual member states to decide. There are no agriculture-specific targets at EU level. Agricultural emissions contribute just under 10% to total EU emissions, but what counts in measuring the potential contribution required from agriculture to the EU targets is its contribution to total non-ETS emissions.

Member states have individual non-ETS emission targets under the Effort Sharing Directive and the contribution of agriculture to non-ETS emissions also differs by member state. Ireland, for example, is in the highest band for non-ETS emission reductions (-20% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels) and also has a uniquely high share of its non-ETS emissions derived from agriculture. Its 2020 non-ETS target is 37.4 Mtonnes of CO2eq, and agricultural emissions on the business-as-usual scenario are expected to amount to 18.9 MTonnes of CO2eq in 2020, or exactly 50% of the non-ETS target. Clearly, measures to ensure that Ireland meets the EU targets over the 2013-2020 period will find it difficult to ignore agriculture. Similar challenges will arise in other member states if to a lesser extent.

Moving to a 30% reduction target

These challenges would be added to if the EU decided to increase the level of ambition of its 2020 target as a number of member states would like. The European Council in Spring 2007 conditionally offered, as part of a global and comprehensive agreement for the period beyond 2012, to move to a 30% emission reduction by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and that developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities.

Although the European Parliament has called for the EU to unilaterally adopt the 30% target, EU Environment Ministers meeting in June this year failed to agree to this commitment, with Poland in particular voicing its opposition.


Agricultural emissions only include direct emissions from agricultural activities (mainly enteric fermentation, agricultural soil management, and rice cultivation). Land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities also contribute to emissions, either as sources or sinks. Under the UNFCCC reporting requirements, countries are required to report net emissions from all LULUCF activities.

However, for the purposes of the Kyoto Convention targets in the first commitment period (2008-2012), it was mandatory to include only a limited sub-set of LULUCF activities in the commitment targets (only greenhouse gas fluxes associated with deforestation, afforestation and reforestation have to be included in national accounts for emissions reduction target setting purposes. This requirement is set out in Article 3 paragraph 3 of the Protocol). Other LULUCF activities (including emissions attributable to land use management change, such as forest management, grazing land management or crop land management may be voluntarily accounted for, see Article 3 paragraph 4 of the Protocol) but the EU chose not to do so.

For the purposes of accounting for the EU 2020 target, greenhouse gas emissions and removals related to LULUCF activities are currently not included in the EU 2020 target. The Climate and Energy Package requires the Commission to assess ways of counting LULUCF towards the EU’s reduction commitment and, depending on its findings, to make a legislative proposal. A public consultation is currently underway on whether emissions and removals of greenhouse gases related to LULUCF should be covered by the EU’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 20%, or, if the conditions are right, to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Against this background, the agreements reached at the Durban meeting of the UNFCCC Committee of the Parties (COP 17), which included the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, are likely to have three immediate impacts for the role of agriculture in the EU’s emission reduction strategy. In addition, the decision to continue discussions on agriculture and climate change under the ‘cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions’ heading of the Long-Term Cooperative Action track of the Convention may have importance in the longer term.

30% emissions reduction target by 2020

The conference outcome launched a process to develop an agreed outcome with legal force that will be applicable to all Parties to the UN climate convention. The decision states that this process shall raise levels of ambition in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The new instrument is to be adopted by 2015 and be implemented from 2020. The EU Climate Change Commissioner has stated that this agreement meets the EU’s key goal at the Durban conference.

However, whether it means that the EU will now proceed to raise its domestic target to a 30% reduction seems unclear. A roadmap is not the same as the eventual agreement, and it seems doubtful that the Durban outcome alone meets the criteria set out in the European Council decision of December 2009 for raising the target. Only if an agreement is successfully negotiated by 2015 would these criteria be met. However, the EU Council could decide, to avoid bunching the additional emission reductions into the final five years of the target period, that it was going to adopt the higher target immediately, at least on a pro tem basis. This would require some change in member state positions from those adopted at the Environment Council meeting in June 2011.

Extension of the Kyoto Protocol to second commitment period

In Durban it was formally decided that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will run from 1 January 2013, thus avoiding a gap at the end of the first commitment period finishing next year. Parties’ quantified targets for reducing emissions, as well as rules governing the carryover of surplus emission rights from the first commitment period, will be decided at the end of next year. It is unclear whether the next commitment period will run to 2017 or to 2020. Presumably, the EU will propose whatever domestic targets it decides as discussed in the previous section as its KP targets. These targets should be communicated to the UNFCCC by 1 May next year, so any decision on the 30% target must be made by then.

LULUCF rules

The EU must still decide what to do with LULUCF activities in its carbon accounting. Assuming that its KP targets for the period to 2020 are the same as its domestic targets under the Climate and Energy Package, then the accounting rules should be the same. Under the KP Article 3(3), as we saw above, net emissions from forestry land use change since the base year in 1990 must be included in the KP accounting. This therefore implies that they should also be included in assessing progress towards the CEP 2020 targets. As including LULUCF in the accounting will add offsets to the gross emissions in other sectors, this would make the existing 20% reduction target less ambitious.

In addition, new rules on forestry management in the case of pre-1990 forests in accounting for KP targets were approved as part of the Durban package. Whether the EU would wish to go further and also make mandatory accounting from other land use management activities is less certain, given the continuing doubts about monitoring and verification and the permanence of soil carbon stored as a result of land use management changes.

The new forest management rules were hotly contested at Durban. While the EU claims that the new rules will improve the Protocol’s environmental integrity, many developing countries and NGOs disagree. The new rules allow anticipated future ‘business as usual’ emissions, based on current policy settings, as their baseline for accounting purposes. In other words, even if actual emissions from ‘forest management’ increase as anticipated, they would be accounted for as ‘zero’. If emissions growth is greater than anticipated, the accounts would show a negative value and an accounting debit would result. However, if actual growth in emissions turned out to be less than anticipated, their accounts would show a positive value — despite the fact that emissions had actually increased. Countries will be able to claim windfall accounting credits for not having done as badly as intended (I have taken this paragraph from a useful briefing by the Humane Society International in Australia).

This decision – some would call it a loophole – would add further to the offsets possible when bringing LULUCF into its 2020 target accounting and thus also affect the relative stringency of any target adopted, with knock-on implications for agriculture.

In a separate decision, the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice has been requested to initiate a work programme to explore more comprehensive accounting of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks from land use, land-use change and forestry, including through a more inclusive activity-based approach or a land-based approach, and to report back at the next session. Thus the rules governing LULUCF could undergo a further change as a result of this exercise.

Longer term perspectives

In the longer term, the negotiations on how agriculture should be treated in the ‘sectoral approaches’ section of the LCA track could be significant. There appeared to be agreement on a draft text at the Copenhagen COP in 2009, but since then developing countries have hardened their attitude and three optional texts went forward to Durban from the preparatory Panama meeting. Although no agreement on a separate work programme on agriculture was reached, the COP’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) concluded that a decision on agriculture will be made at COP18 which takes place November 2012 in Qatar. Apparently this is the first time that the UNFCCC adopts a decision on agriculture. The critical issue is how to square the circle between reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and yet ensuring that food production can continue to increase to meet the growth in expected food demand by 2050 and beyond. This raises the issue whether there might be a different accounting treatment for agricultural emissions in an agreement which includes legally binding commitments by both developed and developing countries.

The issue of carbon leakage has been indirectly addressed by discussions on the trade implications of any domestic measures designed to curb emissions. Developing countries have wanted to include language which would forbid countries from imposing any additional trade restrictions, for example, in the form of border adjustments or labelling requirements, which might act to limit their agri-food exports to developed countries. Developed countries, for their part, have resisted such language, arguing that trade issues are more appropriately dealt with as a cross-cutting issue elsewhere in the negotiations.

Herein lies the importance of the promise in Durban that all countries agree to draw up a legal framework (even the meaning of this term was softened in the final stage of the negotiations to bring India on board) that will involve all countries in making commitments, under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, to reduce emissions.

A lop-sided world, in which some countries have commitments but others do not, ultimately makes no contribution to reducing emissions. This is demonstrated starkly by the experience of the Kyoto Protocol where Annex 1 countries can meet their commitments by simply out-sourcing their carbon-intensive activities and importing the same goods from emerging economies often produced with energy from highly-polluting coal-fired plants. Overall, there has been no delinking between GDP growth and energy growth at the global level despite the operation of the KP.

Reducing agricultural emissions in Europe only to replace them with potentially higher emissions in other countries has no value from a climate change perspective. The great achievement at Durban (and much of the credit seems to go to the EU Climate Change Commissioner for this success) was to create a perspective where the issue of carbon leakage can be addressed. Turning that promise into reality over the next three years, particularly given the toxic nature of US politics at the moment, will be an even more difficult task.

This post was written by Alan Matthews.
Image associated with the post used under a Creative Commons Licence copyright Keith Evans

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