The decision to put off any serious action on Climate Change until 2020 would be farcical were it not a great opportunity for Agriculture to come into its own. The “breakthrough’ at Durban – the agreement by all nations attending (except Canada) to make an agreement by 2015 to do something by 2020 – leaves a void and people are asking how can we fill it. “Whilst pledging to make progress in a number of areas, governments acknowledged the urgent concern that the current sum of pledges to cut emissions both from developed and developing countries is not high enough to keep the global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius,” said Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and President of the Durban UN Climate Change Conference.
Soil carbon sequestration is attracting attention as a potential solution whose time has come. And it was in the right place – Africa – at the right time, when the World Bank launched its Climate Smart Agriculture. Author Fred Pearse was at the launch on Agriculture Day in Durban: “The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate. This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.” Solving the food crisis and the climate crisis is a double-edged sword, say those who fear that peasant farmers will be forced off their land when agriculture becomes more lucrative. “Soil carbon offsets will promote a spate of African land grabs and put farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets,” said Teresa Anderson of the UK-based Gaia Foundation, an NGO that promotes indigenous farming. The standard objections are recited in any discussion of soil carbon. In Fred Pearse’s report he mentions the cost of measurement and the fact that commercial crops in which large agribusinesses specialize have a much greater potential to take up carbon than smallholder subsistence crops.
Data presented in 2010 at the FAO in Rome by Rama Reddy of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit show that the carbon-capture potential for a hectare of smallholder maize in Kenya is around half a ton of carbon dioxide per year, whereas the potential for commercial biofuels is between 2.5 and 5 tons, and for a sugar cane plantation up to 8 tons per hectare. Australia offers large acreage, commercial crops and well-educated farmers... But problems aside, Fred Pearse concludes: “Any credible solution to climate change will probably involve finding ways to get the landscape to absorb more carbon, whether in trees or soils, probably financed from carbon markets.”