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Opinion: It’s gettin’ hot in here…so take back all your carbon

Emily Alpert is Deputy Director of Agriculture for Impact, a London-based advocacy group that convenes the Montpellier Panel.

LONDON, Oct 10 2015 (IPS) - Africa is getting hot fast. Already battling against the impacts of climate change, temperatures in Africa will rise faster than any other continent. In fact, they are expected to exceed 2 C and may reach as high as 6 C greater than 20th century levels. These rapidly rising temperatures foreshadow increased drought, famine and disease. The most vulnerable populations – of which millions are smallholder farmers – need solutions, and they need them now.

These rising temperatures brought on by climate change affect not only yields, but also food quality, safety and the reliability of its delivery to consumers. By 2050, child malnutrition could increase by as much as 20 per cent and food shortages could lead to losses of up to 7 per cent of GDP followed by corresponding food price hikes.

Maize, rice and wheat prices in 2050 could rise by 4 per cent, 7 per cent and 15 percent respectively, nullifying progress made in the last two decades to combat hunger and poverty in Africa.

Smallholders: from victims to solution providers

The Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European agriculture and food security experts, argue in The Farms of Change: African Smallholders Responding to an Uncertain Future, that farmers can be part of the solution to climate change. But only if they are supported to adopt adaptation actions that simultaneously reduce emissions.

Agriculture generates carbon emissions primarily from livestock, but also poor land use and improper soil management. Agriculture and land use accounts for nearly one-third of Africa’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is as high as 80 per cent.

Ensuring global temperatures do not rise above 2 C will be very difficult without leveraging the potential of the agriculture sector, and helping smallholders to reduce and offset GHG emissions. However, this requires significant levels of funding. Most importantly, this finance needs to be designed in ways that benefit smallholders and incentivize them to invest in their land and labour even though it may not immediately produce visible returns.

The potential of taking back all our carbon

As part of the global climate talks set to take place in Paris this December, countries have committed to take action to reduce emissions by proposing Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

However, the projected total of these pledges leaves the world far-off from a stable climate future, in part because agriculture is excluded. Instead, investments, adaptation plans and mitigation strategies should be directed towards better land management that sequesters carbon in the soil.

Soil carbon sequestration is the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil indefinitely. The sequestration process takes time (between five and 50 years) to reach its optimum rate, and then continues until the soil has reached its full storage capacity. The process minimises emissions by adding organic matter to soil faster than the rate at which it decays.

This can be achieved in many ways: no-till farming (primarily minimum disturbance of the soil), planting cover crops, manure and sludge application, improved grazing techniques, water conservation and agroforestry. Agroforestry systems can in fact capture carbon in the range of two to four tonnes per hectare per year – which is much higher than conservation farming alone.

The potential to sequester carbon worldwide through better land management has been estimated at around three Gt of carbon per year. Collectively this has the potential to offset between 5 and 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and increase annual grain production in developing countries by 24 to 32 million tonnes, leading to improved food security for many farmers and their families.

Incentivising farmers to take action on climate change

Farmers can and will undertake climate-adaptation actions that simultaneously reduce emissions, but they need to be provided with the right incentives. This includes paying them to protect the environment and giving them secure land rights to inspire better protection and care of their own fields.

In Niger, government policies that strengthened local farmer rights for planting trees, coupled with training from aid agencies to improve land management through soil and water conservation and agroforestry resulted in the revitalization of more than 5 million hectares. Today, smallholders in Niger benefit from enriched soils, increased crop yields and lower emissions.

Advances in carbon offset programmes that involve smallholders are also underway. The Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP) involves 60,000 farmers on 45,000 hectares to increase the organic matter in their soils by sustainable land management. In January 2014, the project issued its first carbon credits to participating smallholders who captured 25,000 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to more than the annual emissions of 5,000 vehicles.

When leaders arrive in Paris, they might be trying to warm-up from the bitter cold, but smallholders are counting on them to keep temperatures bearable in Africa. Agricultural production and smallholder livelihoods are under threat from climate change, but farmers are not helpless. With the right support, they can bring Africa closer to a continent that is defined by prosperity, not poverty.

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