Good COP, Bad COP

Climate, Copenhagen and Food Security
by -- December 18th, 2009

Whatever comes out of Copenhagen is sure to have profound implications for our ability to feed a hungry and growing global population

It is 10 pm Friday in Copenhagen as I look out my window at the Bella Center, where world leaders are still trying to hammer out an international agreement on climate change. Today President Obama addressed the assembled leadership and argued that failure to forge an agreement would not only create profound environmental threats to our society, but would represent a demonstrable failure of global collective action to address large existential threats.

At this stage, I feel a bit like a sports reporter filing his story before the game has ended. But deadlines loom and there is a lot more to the story than the final score. Among the key sub-plots of Copenhagen is how global agriculture and food security will be affected by the success or failure of the global agreement. One can look at this from the three lenses through which climate policy is traditionally viewed.

Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture

Agriculture may be the most directly impacted of all human endeavors by climate change. Projections of higher temperatures, changing water availability including droughts and floods, migration of agro-ecological zones and increased frequency of severe weather events all have potential negative ramifications for agricultural production. While the processes and feedbacks are complex, it is widely believed that these damages are directly a function of projected mean temperature rise. Leaders came into Copenhagen with the goal of establishing emissions targets to keep global mean temperature from rising less than 2O C, which would require stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in a few years. Within the meetings, some observer groups pushed strongly to shoot for a 1.5OC temperature target – a feat that would essentially require a lowering of today’s atmospheric concentrations. A leaked document this week suggested that the range of cuts agreed to this week might not succeed in keeping temperatures to 3OC. We are unlikely to get a full agreement on targets this week, so this issue is still up in the air.


With more than 6 billion mouths to feed, and perhaps 3 billion more by the middle of the century, it is clear the world cannot tolerate substantial climate-related losses in agricultural productivity. Researchers, agronomists, and farmers will need to adapt with new drought- and pest-resistant crop varieties, modified practices to adjust to changes in resource availability, and possibly even migration away from lands that are no longer arable. This all requires money. The Copenhagen agreement appears poised to pledge billions of dollars for adaptation in developing countries, as they are the most exposed to these risks and least equipped to deal with these problems on their own. It is unclear how much of this is targeted for agriculture and how the money will be spent that is. Moreover, while adaptation in developing countries is critical, developed countries will not escape the need.


One of the signature elements of the Copenhagen process is broad agreement on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Deforestation accounts for about one-seventh of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about the equivalent of the global transportation sector. A vast majority of this occurs in the tropics, where the primary driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion. As populations have grown and food demand has risen, the pressure to clear forests has been strong and constant. We lose about 13 million hectares of forest per year globally, or an area the size of Alabama. The Copenhagen goal is to cut deforestation steeply by 2020 and get to zero net deforestation by 2030. This will happen by developed countries compensating developing countries to reduce their emissions through a combination of public and private sector finance. The appeal of this approach is that it reduces emissions quicker and less expensively than almost any other option. The challenge, though is how to meet the demand for food and forest products supplied when forests are cleared.

In summary

All of this means that the agricultural sector is going to remake the way it operates in response to climate threats and mitigation opportunities. A public-private partnership unseen since the Green Revolution of the mid-20’th century appears necessary to respond to new climatic conditions and to use existing agricultural land more efficiently to prevent the clearing of forests without generating large volumes of greenhouse gases in the meantime.

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