COP15 Sets the Climate for Change

 Reinier Wassmann   |  

COP15, or the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was widely expected to pave the way for an agreement on climate change after 2012—when the commitment to the current political accord to curtail emissions, otherwise known as the Kyoto protocol, ends. We can now look at the outcome and assess what it means for agriculture and rice production in a forthcoming “post-2012” agreement.The following key features of the agricultural sector set it apart from others in relation to climate change mitigation and adaptation:

  • Agricultural production contributes 13.5% of global emissions without accounting for land-use change, which contributes 18%. At the same time, agriculture has a high technical mitigation potential due to much lower resource-use efficiencies than industry or transportation.
  • About 75% of emissions from agriculture are from developing countries, which shows an opportunity to link climate change mitigation and adaptation to sustainable development policies and support.
  • A large part of agricultural emissions are “non-CO2” greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Though these gases have not been given the same attention as CO2, their global warming potential is 25 and 300 times higher than CO2, respectively.
  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture entail a wide range of potential co-benefits (arguably more than any other sector) that are particularly related to food security and poverty reduction. This is significant because around 70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas.

Despite the undisputed relevance of agricultural production in the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation, this sector was sidelined in discussion of the post-2012 agreement. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research organized an “Agriculture and Rural Development Day” as a side event of COP15, but the role of agriculture in future climate change policy was not mentioned in the final COP15 agreement—the Copenhagen Accord. In contrast, forestry and deforestation are widely referred to in this document.

In a broader context, the lack of precise commitments in the Copenhagen Accord now means more months and years of political negotiations. These negotiations will not be easy. It will be a difficult task to elevate agriculture to the place it deserves in the post-2012 agreement. As of now, there has been no decision yet to change the international accounting rules for mitigation projects, which currently exclude land use from mitigation opportunities through the Clean Development Mechanism.

The adaptation issue seems to have a broad consensus on the need to allocate specific funds for developing countries, but the size of these funds and the modes of distribution are still unclear. New financing and incentive schemes will be required to facilitate the transition to improved management practices that generate both climate change mitigation and improved agricultural performance under aggravating climatic conditions, or to compensate farmers in climatic extremes for yield losses.

What does this mean for rice production? The technological options for mitigation and adaptation of rice production are available. About half of the rice production area is irrigated, allowing judicious changes in water management to reduce emissions and help rice cope with less rainfall (see Goodbye gas on page 14 of Rice Today Vol. 6, No. 3). Improved rice cultivars have a proven track record for coping with the direct and indirect consequences of climate change; no other crop can so effectively deal with increasing flooding intensity due to extreme rainfall and sea level rise. Given the financial constraints of most rice-growing countries, however, the viability of mitigation and adaptation projects in rice production will rely on the availability of external funds from the developed world.

Around 90% of global rice production occurs in Asia and much of this is on small landholdings. Support for climate change mitigation and adaptation in these regions could come from flexible and diverse carbon markets. To obtain this, we will need to work closely with communities and national agricultural research and extension systems to establish consistent and accurate methods to measure, report, and verify emission savings. IRRI’s work has shown that the impact of emission-reducing technologies in rice production can be quantified through standard established methods and supplemented with some field testing. Current research aims to facilitate the wide-scale uptake of water management technologies and assess impacts across larger areas. With such demonstrated potential to contribute to mitigation, we hope that methane reduction from irrigated rice will be eligible for offsets and other mitigation funding opportunities as an outcome of COP15. Such a move could spur the development of rice production systems in developing countries, thus helping make food production more sustainable and reliable.


Dr. Wassmann is coordinator of the Rice and Climate Change Consortium at the International Rice Research Institute. He was also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change group that developed the Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

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