By: Jessie Gittemeier; Brigit Rollins
The Paris Climate Agreement (Paris Agreement) is an international treaty to address climate change. It represents the agreement of 195 parties to take action to limit global temperature increase to below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement does not mandate substantive actions a country must take to limit emissions, but it does require that parties to the agreement submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) every five years. NDCs are essentially national reports on the state of a country’s efforts to reduce emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. NDCs should reflect the “highest possible ambition” of the parties and represent a progression over time.
The United States was originally a party to the Paris Agreement in 2015 under the Obama Administration. In 2017, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. However, Article 28 of the Paris Agreement does not allow a party to withdraw from the agreement within the first three years of joining the agreement. Consequentially, the Trump administration had to wait three years past 2016 when the Paris Agreement came into force to announce its intent to withdraw, and then had to wait another year for the withdrawal to take effect. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement finally took effect one day after the U.S. Presidential election on November 4, 2020. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on January 20, 2021 to rejoin the agreement and formally rejoined on February 19, 2021 after a 30-day waiting period.
As noted above, the Paris Agreement does not require countries to take specific action to reduce emission reductions. Rather, it requires countries to establish, maintain, and publish a nationally determined contribution (NDC). The nationally determined contribution details how much a country plans to reduce its emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The 2015 U.S. NDC set a goal of 26-28% reduction of emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, but included no information on how that goal would be achieved. The contents of a NDC are not legally binding, therefore the Trump Administration was able to roll back most of the Obama Administration’s emission reduction programs, such as the Clean Power Plan, despite a U.S. NDC which had ambitious emission reduction plans. In theory, the Trump administration was still legally required to maintain the NDC, but its contents could be virtually meaningless. This is because the legal requirements of the Paris Agreement are procedural, not substantive. So as long as the Trump administration followed the procedural aspects such as maintaining a NDC, there were no substantive legal actions required. Parties to the Paris Agreement were required to update their NDCs in 2020, but issues surrounding the specific details of such a requirement and COVID-19 has allowed many countries to avoid meeting that deadline.
Now that the Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, the U.S. is expected to release new emission reduction strategies. Additionally, the U.S. will be required to update its NDC in line with the requirements of the Paris Agreement. Given the increase in emissions during the Trump presidency, the new NDC will likely reflect more ambitious and rigorous actions to put the U.S. back on track to achieving significant emission reductions. More information regarding the new U.S. NDC can be found here.
Although the text of the Paris Agreement does not mention agriculture, it does highlight the role of food security, hunger, and the vulnerability of the food production system in the face of climate change. Additionally, agriculture has made its way into conversations surrounding climate change both as a contributor to climate change, and a sector that will be highly affected by climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the original 1992 treaty to begin international cooperation to address climate change. Every subsequent action of international cooperation through the United Nations has taken place through this framework, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. The main decision-making body of the UNFCCC is the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is made up of all 197 parties to the convention. The COP meets every year in sessions to deliberate and organize the international state of global action on climate change through the UNFCCC. No formal COP decision incorporated agriculture until the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) created the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) to address issues related to agriculture. The KJWA is charged with collecting information on agriculture and reporting back to the COP in November 2021. It does not mandate countries take any specific action, but it may open the door for agriculture to play a greater role in mitigation and adaptation strategies to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In 2017, the 23rd Conference of the Parties adopted decision 4/CP.23 which requested the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) assess and report back on issues related to agriculture and climate. The SBSTA and SBI are the two permanent subsidiary bodies to the Convention that provide expertise, advice, and information to the COP.
The COP 23 decision identified several elements for the SBSTA and SBI to explore including:
(a) Modalities for implementation of the outcomes of the five in-session workshops on issues related to agriculture and other future topics that may arise from this work;
(b) Methods and approaches for assessing adaptation, adaptation co-benefits and resilience;
(c) Improved soil carbon, soil health and soil fertility under grassland and cropland as well as integrated systems, including water management;
(d) Improved nutrient use and manure management towards sustainable and resilient agricultural systems;
(e) Improved livestock management systems;
(f) Socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agricultural sector.
Since then, SBSTA and SBI have followed a timeline titled the “Koronivia road map” for implementation of their instructions. Initially the roadmap was intended to end with a report back to COP 26 in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for submission of the report has been moved back to November 2021. The new roadmap can be found here.
Over the course of the past few years, the KJWA has been consistently holding workshops and requesting submissions from relevant stakeholders on topics (a)-(f) listed above. Information on KJWA workshops and reports can be found here. Supplementary information from FAO on KJWA work can be found here.
It is unclear how KJWA’s report to COP 26 will affect international efforts on climate change and its relation to agriculture. The KJWA will provide substantive information on how parties to the Paris Agreement can adapt their agricultural sector to the consequences of climate change, and likely how agriculture can be used for mitigation. However, what type of role agriculture will play in climate change mitigation and adaptation will largely depend on the independent decisions of countries. Nevertheless, the KJWA is a major step towards increasing agriculture’s role in international efforts to address climate change and will provide countries with further options and expertise in this area.