Since farming is a major contributor to the problem of climate change, it must also be an important part of the solution. FAO's report to COAG on the subject proposes that the Organization develop an integrated climate change programme that would allow it to play a stronger role in international negotiations, share its expertise in areas crucial to climate change mitigation, and support general improvements in the resilience of agriculture to climate variability.
Obligations, opportunities. The role of farming in climate change emerged strongly in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That protocol places special emphasis on the promotion of sustainable forms of agriculture, citing land-use changes, methane fermentation, manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soils and biomass burning as sources of greenhouse gases that must be taken into consideration by countries in their reports to the Conference of the UNFCCC Parties.
"FAO and its members are faced with several challenges directly or indirectly deriving from the current climate negotiations," the report says. Signatories to the UNFCCC, for example, are obliged to carry out detailed inventories of anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases; the Kyoto Protocol goes further, committing countries to verifiable changes in carbon stocks, including those deriving from land-use changes and which are of direct relevance to agriculture.
The "Kyoto Mechanisms" also provide incentives - known as "carbon credits" - for countries that reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. Although no agreement has been reached on the actual "mechanisms", it is likely that countries will earn carbon credits through improvements in the sustainability and farm and forestry production systems (including more rational fertilizer use, more efficient animal feeds, development of water harvesting and conservation techniques, conservation agriculture practices, reductions in slash-and-burn agriculture and better soil protection).
Satellite data and biofuels. In addition, other long-standing FAO activities could help member countries meet their UNFCCC obligations. For example, the Organizations collects and maintains a wide range of data of direct relevance not only to climate change in general, but also to countries' more immediate reporting requirements. They include georeferenced information on vegetation, soil and soil organic matter, climate data and maps, biomass indicators derived from satellite remote sensing, and statistics on fertilizer use, areas under rice cultivation and numbers of ruminant cattle. FAO also provides the secretariat of the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), which is leading a Terrestrial Carbon Observation Initiative aimed at helping countries assess and monitor carbon sources and sinks in their agricultural and rural sectors.
FAO's programmes on bio-energy and biofuels offer developing countries experience and expertise in the substitution of fossil fuel, the main source of carbon dioxide emissions. Biomass now provides about 15% of the world's energy, a share that could be increased significantly with modern conversion technology. The expected move towards the wider use of energy crops and plantations during the 21st century could play an important role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing employment in remote rural areas.
The proposed FAO-wide programme would help focus on climate change the Organization's experience in such fields as training of agricultural personnel, policy formulation and advice, and adaptation of farming practices to adverse conditions and fragile environments. It would also encourage synergies in the agricultural domain between climate change agreements and other environmental conventions, especially those on desertification and biodiversity, and develop statistical methods in a range of areas - from forest resources assessments to soil carbon monitoring - that are compatible with the UNFCCC reporting requirements.
Published March 2001