Measuring success from COP21: Agriculture, food security and climate adaptation

Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Photo by: IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

Maria Helena Semedo left Paris this weekend in positive spirits.

Many had thought that the outcome of the climate change conference wouldn’t meet the world’s collectively high expectations. But Semedo remained optimistic and forward-looking.

As deputy director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Semedo followed the negotiations in the U.N. climate change conference with great interest. Now that the talks are over and a landmark deal has been reached, the challenge is how closely the agreement will be adhered to.

In an exclusive interview with Devex, Semedo shared her views on the role of agriculture, food security and climate adaptation at COP21 and what still needs to be done to overcome the adaptation challenge.

And Semedo, former minister of agriculture, fisheries and rural development in her native Cape Verde, is already looking ahead to next year’s COP22.

“We have high expectations for the meeting in Marrakesh as a follow up to Paris, where we hope that agriculture, food security and adaptation will feature prominently in the discussions,” she told Devex.

Here are some highlights from that conversation at COP21 in Paris:

What has been the “missing ingredient” for food security and adaptation in the Paris discussions?

There was a misperception of the role of agriculture for several reasons. First, agriculture has been seen as a threat because livestock contribute to emissions … Maybe another reason is that when talking about agriculture, you always [refer] to trade — and you know all the discussions at the [World Trade Organization] and this unfinished business on trade negotiations.

What we tried to bring to this COP is that agriculture could be part of the solution to climate change. If we really bring innovation, if we really bring new technologies to agriculture, we can adapt to climate change in such a way that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.

A number of people we’ve spoken to in Paris have warned that there’s a lack of resources to fund adaptation. What are the most effective ways to mobilize additional finance and how can it be best invested?    

Before Paris, countries presented their [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions]. In these talks, 80 percent of the countries said they will work on sectors — such as agriculture, forestry, fishery, land and water — to adapt to climate change, to reduce emissions. … At the same time, countries say they don’t have enough internal national resources to invest in those sectors and  in adaptation. This means that we need consequent financial resources, such as the Climate Adaptation Fund, the Green Climate Fund …  [and] additional pledges [with] adaptation as a high priority.

What’s the role data play in the definition of adaptation programs and projects, and in accessing funds?

INDCs: A critical — and critically misunderstood — part of the COP21 climate agreement

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are essentially the backbone of the Paris climate agreement, writes Carl Mercer, advocacy and communications specialist for the climate change and disaster risk reduction team at the U.N. Development Program. Why are they so important?

[FAO] produces these public goods — statistics, information, data, even our publications on the state of food insecurity, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, where we present country-related figures ... We can use those data for policy makers to define policies and strategies for projects and programs. And through those projects and programs, we can help countries access those resources.

Another very important area for FAO is capacity building. It’s not enough to have the information. At country level, they need to have the capacities to understand the information and use [it] for monitoring and evaluation, to measure progress.

It seems to be quite difficult to measure the impact of adaptation interventions ...

I had discussion here with the Moroccan delegation. The FAO is going to work with Morocco to define indicators to measure adaptation, because so far we don’t have measurements for adaptation. We can say we have techniques to help countries and farmers to adapt, but we have difficulties in measuring if they have really adapted and if those adaptation techniques have contributed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Do the lack of tools or indicators to monitor impact represent a constraint on donors to invest in adaptation?

It could, because when you have figures you can show the impact of what you are doing and donors can see their money; [that] their investment is having an impact and showing results. On the other hand, I am convinced that we really create awareness on the importance of adaptation, and that adaptation is part of the solution. Our message is this: Adaptation can bring mitigation and mitigation can bring adaptation. It’s what we call the co-benefits and this is what we should continue to look at.

Capacity building also seems to be quite relevant here, when using technologies or implementing strategies for adaptation. When you talk about the need for innovation, what does this mean for the FAO?

We need to create an enabling environment for innovation, to create a platform where we can exchange good practices between countries.

FAO has a network of representatives around the world that can help us to connect farmers and countries in such a way that, for example, a climate-friendly practice in Bangkok or Bangladesh could be used in Africa, and vice versa.

They could be techniques or they could be seeds. We work a lot with South-South cooperation and I think [this] could be a very important element in the adaptation process, in the exchange of information on adaptation.      

And what are the most innovative ways to invest scarce resources to really make a difference?

These resources will have really an effect on climate, and on achieving the goals agreed in Paris. We need to ensure that through those investments we have technologies, we have innovation and we have capacity building.

If you have these three investments — and we need to have indicators to measure the impacts of these investments — I am sure we can bring really good energy and excitement to investment on adaptation.

What is the biggest challenge in building capacity on data gathering for adaptation?

The data-gathering process is really capital-intensive. So we need a lot of resources, especially when we start the process, because we need to have strong institutions to bring credibility to the information. We then need to have a follow-up on the data, because we cannot have data now and then again in 30 years. For this we need knowledge and technical capacity. Fortunately, nowadays we have very easy techniques, such as geo-spatial imaging and we can collect information by phone. This is the technology we need to make the process easier, faster and more credible.

What topics have perhaps not been addressed in Paris that you will bring to the COP22 in Marrakech?

Issues of agriculture, food security, adaptation or food systems will be on the table in Marrakech, but to me this is part of a process. You see that the REDD+ [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation] program has been in the [COP21] negotiations, but do you know how long it took? Thirteen years. That does not happen overnight …

Oceans are another issue … Unfortunately, the negotiations have been focused on energy and fossil fuels, transportation. When we talk about pollution, we talk about cars, and electric cars as the solution, but have you thought about the ships, their emissions and pollution? We are not yet having this discussion [but] we have a good momentum … What we need to do is to take this discussion to Marrakesh, and after Marrakesh expect that in the next few years it will be under negotiation, because this is a very long process … But I am optimistic because I could see around the table here that when you talk about agriculture [the discussions are] not as they were before.

What have been the most important lessons learned during COP21?

What I have learned is that even when we have an objective, when we are genuine in our objectives, we need to be very patient ... We have 195 countries at the table and every one has its own interests, its own specificities and to have a common interest is not an easy process.

Unfortunately, food security — and I am not even talking about agriculture here — and smallholder farmers, the most vulnerable, have not been at the table. [Negotiations] have been more [focused on] the countries that have polluted, that have created this, but not being fair on the others that didn’t necessarily contribute. There has been a lot of injustice towards those countries, but we have to remember that it is a long-term process.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.