Blog Post

Food and land use systems at COP28: preparing implementation of NDCs and funding mechanisms

The agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sector emits 22% of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, both the capacity of forests and other ecosystems to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and agricultural yields will be impacted by increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns. Beyond its importance in climate action, today’s agriculture is the main driver of biodiversity loss globally, and provides livelihoods for almost half of the world’s population and the vast majority of all the food we eat.

The transformation of AFOLU must therefore meet objectives on climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience, biodiversity conservation, rural livelihoods, and food security. This requires systemic transformations of the sector, including by protecting and restoring ecosystems through conservation policies and by ensuring that rural communities can use forests sustainably; transforming agricultural practices to reduce environmental impacts by diversifying agricultural landscapes and reducing excessive fertiliser application; and reducing food loss and waste, and meat consumption where relevant.

Given its role for climate action, AFOLU merits a central place at COPs. While forests have traditionally received significant attention under UNFCCC, the same is not true for agriculture and food systems – until COP28, where food systems received significant attention. What does this mean for the transformation of AFOLU going forward?

The Declaration on food systems and climate action – a political recognition of the need for systemic transformations

At the start of COP28, 154 states, including major agricultural producers such as the US, EU, China and Brazil, declared their intention to accelerate action on food systems in the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action – the first official declaration on the importance of agriculture under the UNFCCC. India, and many Least Developed Countries (LDCs), did not yet sign. The declaration is important for (at least) two reasons.  

First, it has traditionally been difficult to talk about the mitigation of GHG emissions from agriculture and food systems at the UNFCCC, and discussions have centred on adapting agriculture to a changing climate – the priority for India and African countries. The declaration recognises the importance of agriculture and food systems for achieving global targets on adaptation, food security, farmer livelihoods, mitigation and biodiversity. This translates into a concrete commitment to include agriculture and food systems in national climate plans (nationally determined contributions, NDCs) with a focus on mitigation, national adaptation (NAP’s) and biodiversity (NBSAP’s) and desertification plans, and to the objectives of the Global Biodiversity Framework decided at COP15 of the UN biodiversity convention last year.

Brazil, who will host COP30, seeks to lead by example by announcing a national plan for ecological transformation with a focus on socio-bioeconomy, that will propose a transformation of the Brazilian food and land use sector in line with the variety of objectives mentioned in the declaration. This announcement deserves to be analysed in detail as an early example of the implementation of the declaration, including the coherence with the country’s updated NDC.  

Second, the declaration focuses on agriculture and food systems, which signals a recognition of the importance of actions that transform agricultural production and land use and of actions that change diets and reduce food waste and losses. This is important since levers for change as well as factors that constrain farmers choices are in the downstream part of the supply chain (processing, retailing, consumption). It is also coherent with the UN Food Systems Summit.

Although far from sufficient, these two observations point to a growing recognition of the need for systemic transformations of the food and land use systems in international climate negotiations.

Negotiations on agriculture and climate action – revealing different visions for the desirable development of agriculture

Since 2017, the UNFCCC host negotiations on agriculture, with the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) until last year’s COP27, when the Sharm al Sheikh work programme on agriculture and climate action (SSJW) was adopted. The KJWA produced a list of options for adaptation in agriculture, some with key co-benefits for biodiversity, food and nutrition security, and climate change mitigation. In Sharm al Sheikh, it was agreed to organise workshops on how to implement these solutions, setting an agenda for the transformation of agriculture and food systems. However, the negotiations broke down due to disagreements on whether the work on agriculture should be led by a permanent coordinating body or not.

Hence, workshop topics were not discussed at COP28. But submissions to the UNFCCC process from earlier this year reveal three main visions.

  • Climate-smart agriculture focusing on technology- and data-driven developments to reduce emissions and increase productivity.
  • Regenerative and agroecological transitions, focusing on diversifying landscapes and agricultural production, reducing chemical inputs and replacing them with natural sources of fertilisation and pest-control, the livelihoods of smallholders and where relevant, a protein transition.
  • A focus on ensuring that adequate means of implementation in terms of finance, capacity building and technological transfer is provided to the countries that need it, which remains relatively agnostic on the above two visions.

The solutions that best resolve mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity, poverty and food security challenges of the sector are country specific. However, all solutions do not contribute positively to the identified challenges, and it is very important that national visions and policies, and global institutions, promote pathways that do. The FAO Roadmap on Achieving SDG2 without breaching the 1.5C threshold is a very important exercise in this regard. It emphasises the need for national visions to guide NDC’s. Yet, it raises some questions, particularly around the absence of nature in the actions and pathways that it proposes. Biodiversity is central for the resilience of agriculture production and agricultural ecosystems, as well as for the capacity of trees and soils to store carbon. An ill-managed pathway that fails to balance the need to ensure global food security and to mitigate GHG emissions of food systems with protecting biodiversity, also runs the risk of degrading biodiversity.

Implementing visions and accelerating national action – evolutions on international enabling conditions 

International cooperation is needed to for countries to implement their visions on forests and agriculture, and international cooperation must be needs-based and target identified national needs. The Declaration which notes the essential role of international and multi-stakeholder cooperation for accelerating action on food systems. There were some related developments at COP28, for instance:

  • The announcement of the global forest conservation fund by Brazil to prepare the COP30 conversation on forest protection. It proposes an innovative mix of multilateral, sovereign wealth and private finance which avoids relying on carbon credits and offsets.
  • The launch of the FAST Initiative (announced at COP27) to organise international cooperation around access to finance, and knowledge and capacity.
  • The launch of the Alliance of Champions of Food System Transformation intended as a coalition of countries with high ambition on food systems transformation, thus far signed by Brazil, Cambodia, Norway, Sierra Leone and Rwanda).

Beyond COP28, major public development funders (IFAD, MDBs) are evolving rapidly in the ongoing reform of the international financial architecture. They must design approaches for linking their investment portfolios and sectoral policies on agrifood systems with national transformation pathways compatible with climate, biodiversity and food security objectives. Understanding how this can be done will be a priority in the lead-up to COP30 in Brazil.

While the increased attention to food systems at COP28 is welcome (granted that it does not displace attention and ambition on the transformation of the energy sector that have been at the heart of the negotiations), these initiatives are pieces of a puzzle that is far from complete. The initiatives and processes discussed above must translate into action. For this to happen, COP28 should establish a dialogue among countries and key international institutions on the international needs by countries, and on how countries together with international institutions can respond to these needs.