An Taisce has a few members attending CoP at various times over the next two weeks. We hope to bring you a frequent series of background reports on what is (or is not) happening on the ground.

Our fourth is from Paul Price, a member of An Taisce's Climate Change Committee. Paul is a conservation carpenter with a MSc in Sustainable Development.

We really recommend you read these for the quality of Paul’s pen pictures of CoP21 as seen by a NGO participant

#CoP21 Wednesday 2 December, 2015

Today would have been a good day for Enda Kenny and his advisors to take a hard look at reality, especially as it was agriculture and farmers day at the CoP21. I learned a good deal myself, and had a chance meeting that will stay with me, a stark reminder of what all these climate summits really mean for people in places beyond Ireland’s pastures.

First though, I went to an expert panel on oceans. Despite the calm academic tenor you’d have to be tone deaf not to detect an undertone of scholarly distress. Over a third of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the sea: we are very much an ocean world even if land is our home. And yet our pollution is rapidly killing it, not just through acidification due to our CO₂ emissions but also due to nitrogen, litter and microplastics, with four fifths of the pollution coming from land. As with carbon dioxide’s effect on the atmosphere it is hard to fathom the scale that industrialised, globalised consumption-oriented humanity has had on the planet within only a hundred years. Planetary scale change at extraordinary rates in marine ecosystems that are simply unable to respond quickly enough.

It was very apparent from the assembled expert panel that marine science is seriously under-resourced – just four people in the office of the UN’s International Oceanographic Commission oversee much of global marine science – and lacks the money to do ongoing monitoring to underpin good science. It was very evident that the science does not have the capacity to keep up with staggering rate of change now evident. As with all climate change risks, if we want any optimism we need constant reality monitoring and we need to be supporting the work that gives it to us..

The ‘US Center’ at CoP21 is clearly better resourced than the IOC, with staff and slick presentations proclaiming America’s seriousness about looking like they are doing something, though I doubt the Earth’s climate system is particularly impressed. A carefully stage-managed presentation on the ‘Climate Smart Agriculture Initiative’, had a panel featuring the USA, Costa Rica, Vietnam and, yes, Ireland, represented by our Ambassador to France. There are all sorts of ‘learnings’ to be done, challenges to be met, and listenings to stakeholders to be undertaken to meet the many challenges. The US rep said that 60% more food needs to be produced per year by 2050, which would only be possible with rapid innovation and gains in efficiencies – as much as in the last 10,000 years – but all in the tone that it was all ahead, and all part of being ‘climate smart’.

From Ireland the script was expertly delivered: Holistic; Transformative pathways; Feeding the world while saving the planet; Coherent twin challenges; Sustainable intensification; Excellent grass growth. It sounded fantastic, which it mostly was. All very well if Ireland, starting on the hard task of really cutting total annual and cumulative impacts from agriculture, was stating this modestly, but boasting loudly at events around the world that Ireland is suddenly at the forefront of sustainability when this programme has barely started has the hollow ring of PR spin.

Meanwhile of course total impacts are rising, not least methane and nitrous oxide emissions from more than six million (and increasing) cattle, however efficient production may be. Constantly and wrongly claiming that ‘carbon intensity’, meaning emissions per unit milk or beef produced, is the same as the ‘carbon footprint’ of agriculture in Ireland is getting more than a little irritating. Equating ‘efficiency’ with total impact is not going to win Ireland any sustainability awards unless they’re self-awarded. For our emission targets it is total emissions that matters.

Later in the day a very different vision of Climate Smart Agriculture was presented based on the mature science of agroecology solidly grounded in the major UNEP report, Agriculture at the Crossroads [Note 1]. Entirely contradicting the earlier presentation, Prof. Hans Herren said that globally already twice as much food is being produced as needed. We could feed the future enlarged population with the food we already grow. What is needed he said is not more yield, but better yield with more nutrition and, above all, “more health per acre”. Asked about the phrase Climate Smart Agriculture, the panel’s answer was that the term has gained currency before it was properly defined with a full body of research, so that, unlike agroecology, it is a very easy term to misuse. Herren was very forceful in saying, “We know why and how to change. We need to ask why it is not happening”.

It came through very loudly that maximising nutrition security is more than food security. Worryingly, the data shows that while the rising CO₂ level in the air acts as a fertiliser it also seriously, negatively affects uptake of minerals by plants and decreases protein content, badly reducing the nutritional value of grains in particular. Agroecology, minimises external inputs, such as fertiliser, and concentrates on increasing soil organic matter to increase resilience in all conditions and build biomass. Practiced at a landscape level this approach can and has transformed degraded land into very productive land, as an example from Tigray in Ethiopia showed very well. With only $16,000 and the buy-in of local farmers an entire dry, low biomass valley was transformed into a green and fertile area with rapidly increasing biomass.

Talking to the senior FAO panellist afterward, he had some words for Ireland: yes the grass is ideal for growing beef and dairy and should continue at some level, but meat consumption does need to be curbed globally both for health and for climate. In Ireland, as elsewhere in richer nations, far too much meat is being consumed; in Africa consumption has fallen due to failing crops. In a smarter world beef prices should be far higher (3x higher he thought) in richer nations to limit consumption.

All very enlightening, but for me this day will stay in the mind for a long time for one chance meeting that revolved around a powerful piece of science presentation and its affect on a fellow CoP attendee. Before the agri presentation at the US Center I watched the NOAA Science on a Sphere [Note 2] projection showing past, present and future climate – temperature, ocean acidification and rainfall – truly startling in displaying how completely and how rapidly our planet is changing due to our carbon pollution. By 2100 with high emissions, most of the sphere, turns red for temperature and the shells cannot form for ocean creatures due to the increased acidity of seawater.

A fellow watcher asked for the weblink spelling but he also seemed a bit at a loss. He asked me if this was the future and how it could be. I said yes, if we, and especially the richest in all countries whose consumption is causing the most emissions, do not take a very different path then this is very possibly the kind of future coming this century. He listened and asked deep questions that I tried to answer as well as I could from the science. As a member of the Lesotho delegation he said he would take this information to his minister who would be speaking at the plenary on Monday. It was very obvious that the reality ahead that his nation (a troubled enough one already) might well face and the essential drivers for this change had not been at all clear to him previously. I said that it is not easy to come to terms with but we need to know what the science has understood and now we do need to act fast. He said he would very definitely ask more and say more to his minister, and we shook hands.

In the face of the vast changes underway in the ocean and on the land that support our shared global civilisation, It must surely be that any more hopeful path surely rests on such exchanges of clear words and clasps of warm hands.


For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: [email protected]
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland

Note 1 Agriculture at the Crossroads
Note 2: Science on a Sphere