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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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At the UN general assembly in New York, climate change was one of the main agenda items, with the secretary general convening the first-ever “climate ambition” summit.
As part of a new week-long series, Carbon Brief examined the ins and outs of carbon-offsetting.
A landmark Brazil supreme court ruling on land rights was widely hailed as a “great victory for Indigenous peoples”.
UN’s first-ever ‘climate ambition’ summit
‘DANGEROUS AND UNSTABLE’: As part of the UN general assembly in New York, secretary-general António Guterres convened the first-ever “climate ambition” summit, inviting 34 leaders to speak “in recognition of their strong action on climate change”, notably omitting the US, UK, China, India and COP28 hosts the United Arab Emirates, Reuters reported. At the summit, Guterres warned that society was moving “towards a dangerous and unstable world”, citing “distraught farmers watching crops carried away by floods” as one of the “horrendous effects” of unabated fossil-fuel use, according to Politico. Dennis Francis, a diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago, warned the summit of “potential catastrophe” due to sea level rise, adding that “fertile river deltas like the Mississippi, Mekong and Nile – the world’s breadbaskets – are sinking”, a UN News story said.
AMBITION AND ASSISTANCE: Brazil “brought the biggest news to the table” at the summit, Climate Home News wrote, announcing its plan to “undo former president Jair Bolsonaro’s cuts to its climate ambition and strengthen its targets further”. The country now plans to cut emissions by 48% by 2025 and 53% by 2030. Meanwhile, leaders from several island nations castigated rich countries at the general assembly, with Marshall Islands president David Kabua calling for “the establishment of an international financing facility to assist small island and low-lying atoll nations facing natural disasters”, according to a separate Reuters piece. Another event at the general assembly was the first-ever meeting of the Commonwealth environment and climate ministers. At the meeting, the ministers “noted the role of ecosystem-based approaches, ocean action, land restoration and food-systems transformations in climate resilience and sustainable development”, said a press release from the Commonwealth.
HIGH-SEAS SIGNATORIES: Also at the general assembly, 76 nations and the EU signed the high-seas treaty, “signalling interest in ratifying the agreement designed to protect marine biodiversity in international waters”, Mongabay said. The signing marks a “significant step” towards conserving the high seas, which make up around two-thirds of the world’s oceans, the outlet added. Each country must now ratify the treaty according to its own procedures; once 60 nations have done so, the treaty can finally come into force. The Pacific Islands News Association quoted Pacific Ocean commissioner Dr Filimon Manoni, who said that “to be truly paradigm-shifting, we must aim towards universal participation” in the treaty.
Carbon offsets series
NEW SERIES: Carbon Brief examined the topic of carbon-offsetting in a new week-long series of articles delving into the impact, history and controversies of offsets. As part of the series, Aruna Chandrasekhar wrote an in-depth Q&A on ‘biodiversity offsets’, which have been promoted as one of the key ways to support nature conservation and its goals. Biodiversity-offsetting “sits at the heart” of tensions between biodiversity-rich developing countries demanding more public finance and “debt forgiveness” to help them meet biodiversity targets and rich countries rolling out new “nature markets”. The piece discussed the history, concerns and use of these offsets.
ALL THINGS OFFSETS: In the main article of the series, Carbon Brief examined all aspects of carbon-offsetting. The outlet’s international team of journalists explained what offsets are, how they are used by businesses and nations and why they can be a problematic climate solution. It also explored whether the carbon-offsetting system, which one expert described as “deeply broken”, could ever be effectively reformed. This infographic further explained how offsets work by following the journey of a fictional carbon offset purchased on the voluntary market. Elsewhere, a recent report found that rainforest conservation offset projects are not suitable and a different approach should be used to safeguard critical ecosystems, according to the Guardian.
CLOSER LOOK: In a separate Carbon Brief piece, Daisy Dunne and Yanine Quiroz trawled through news stories and investigations into individual carbon-offset projects to create a detailed map showing the global scale of these initiatives. They found that 70% of the articles examined showed evidence of the projects causing harm to Indigenous peoples and local communities. Almost half of the reports found evidence of offset projects overstating their ability to reduce emissions. To round out the week of reporting, Carbon Brief is hosting a free webinar at 3pm UK time tomorrow, Thursday 28 September, where a group of expert panellists will discuss how carbon-offsetting could be reformed. Click here to register.
Brazil Indigenous victory
LAND RIGHTS: Brazil’s supreme court ruled against a “highly controversial time-frame proposal” that would have “stripped Indigenous rights” to land, according to Mongabay. Indigenous chief Arakuã Pataxó told the outlet: “Without a doubt this is a great victory for Indigenous peoples.” The “time-frame thesis”, if approved, would have prevented Indigenous claims to traditional lands that they had not physically occupied before 5 October 1988, when Brazil’s constitution was enacted. Brazil Reports said this would have “overlooked that during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85), many Indigenous peoples were persecuted and forced from their lands”, alongside the “obvious challenges” in obtaining proof of land occupation.
TENSIONS RUN ON: The ruling will “reshape the way the state approaches Indigenous land rights in Brazil”, according to the Guardian, setting a precedent that will have “widespread implications for all land-boundary disputes in Brazil”. However, the newspaper said that the ruling will not fully solve long-standing tensions around land conflicts. Indigenous leaders told the newspaper that they remain “anxious about attacks by non-Indigenous tenants”. Farmers said they are also worried about potential conflicts as “frictions emerge when Indigenous ranchers and farmers live in the same region”, the piece noted.
NEW DEAL: Elsewhere, the Cameroon government reached an agreement with the Indigenous Baka people to provide them with “more access to natural resources in the country’s protected forest areas”, Radio France Internationale reported. This expanded on a 2019 deal that gave Baka communities “unfettered access” to two national parks in the south-east of the country, the radio network said. The “original forest dwellers” will now have access to another national park and a wildlife reserve. The country’s minister of forestry and wildlife, Jules Doret Ndongo, said this is “another milestone moment in our efforts to promote the rights of Indigenous people and local communities in the preservation of biodiversity”.
AG EMERGENCY: Uruguay has extended its agricultural state of emergency until at least the end of the year. The declaration encompasses “livestock, dairy, horticulture, fruit, agriculture, beekeeping, poultry and forestry”, according to the South American news agency MercoPress. The initial declaration was signed on 25 October 2022 due to ongoing drought in much of the country. Uruguayan livestock minister Fernando Mattos said that the country is “on the way to normal rainfall, [but] there is still a long way to go to recover and reach the ideal point”. MercoPress added that the onset of El Niño “is likely to bring above-average rainfall”.
BURNED OUT: Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season – with more than 200 fires still burning across the country – have turned its “vast forests from carbon sink into super-emitter”, the Guardian wrote. The blazes have emitted around 2bn tonnes of CO2, or “triple the country’s annual carbon footprint”, the newspaper said. It added: “Decades of large wildfire and the mass die-off of trees from insects transformed the boreal from carbon sink to source.” Carbon Brief recently attended a US National Academies workshop on measuring greenhouse gas emissions from wildland fires, where experts noted that such emissions are “considered natural and, therefore, are not included in national greenhouse gas inventories”.
FRAUGHT FARM BILL: With the possibility of a US government shutdown looming, “it will be difficult or even impossible for Congress to enact a new farm bill”, Ag Insider wrote. The current bill expires on 30 September – the same day that the government is slated to shut down, although funding for many programmes follows a separate schedule. “There is little peril until dairy subsidies terminate on 31 December,” according to a separate Ag Insider article, which noted that December “is the new target” for the bill’s passage. The farm bill is projected to contain more than $1.5tn of spending, including on nutrition programmes, international aid, conservation work and crop subsidies.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER: The biggest freshwater lake in Ireland and Britain has hit a “crisis point” due to toxic blue-green algae, the Irish Times reported. This cyanobacteria – a type of bacteria that can photosynthesise – has made Lough Neagh “dangerous to anyone or anything that enters the water”, the newspaper added. The “underpinning drivers” of the issue, according to the Northern Ireland department of environment, include “excess nutrients from agricultural and wastewater systems” along with “climate change and the associated weather patterns, with the very warm June, followed by the wet July and August”. The Social Democratic and Labour party launched a motion to recall the devolved government in Northern Ireland, which has been at a standstill since last year, to discuss the “ecological crisis” on Lough Neagh, BBC News said.
COP28 GREENWASHING: DeSmog released a guide to the “greenwashing” terms that “the world’s largest food and farming companies will be using to sway debates” at COP28 in Dubai. Making the list are “regenerative agriculture”, which the outlet wrote “has ‘limited potential’ to mitigate climate change”; “sustainable intensification”, which is “the idea that industrial farming can continue to grow…but can do so while causing less damage”; and “nature-based solutions”, which DeSmog wrote is likely to be invoked during negotiations around the global carbon-credit market. In a separate piece, DeSmog examined the “Pathways to Dairy Net-Zero” group, a collaboration between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and several other “international groups connected to the dairy industry” that focuses on climate change “solutions that can serve the industry”. DeSmog argued that its focus on improving “efficiency”, rather than reducing pollution, “has only enabled it to produce more milk – and with it, more emissions”.
KIWI FARMERS: “Rural voter anger” towards policies to tackle climate change and reduce emissions may bolster a “return of right-wing parties to power” during an upcoming general election in New Zealand, according to Reuters. Rural voters, who had a “flirtation” with the country’s Labour party in 2020, are looking to conservative candidates on 14 October to “unwind or delay” policies such as “planting pine forests on grazing land and taxing livestock methane burps”. Farmers have staged several protests in the past two years against these regulations, Reuters noted. Similar protests in the Netherlands saw a farmers’ party winning “sufficient support to shake up the country’s senate”, the newswire said, acquiring 16 of the 75 senate seats.
SPROUTING: For Hawai’i Magazine, Kevin Allen wrote about the 150-year-old Lahaina Banyan Tree, which is acting as a “ray of hope” for locals devastated by last month’s Maui wildfires.
INCLUSIVE AG: In the Kathmandu Post, two researchers discussed the “multifaceted challenges” facing the agriculture sector in the mid-hills of Nepal, and how they can be addressed through gender-inclusive policies.
BIODIVERSITY CHATS: BBC Sounds podcast, the Life Scientific, spoke to Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about his “life spent in the wild”.
CHARRED: A piece by Max Graham in Grist looked at whether the production of biochar – described as a “focal point” in efforts to turn agriculture into a climate solution – can be scaled up.
Earthworms contribute significantly to global food production
New research found that earthworms contribute to around 6.5% of the world’s grain production. Researchers looked at maps of earthworm abundance, soil properties and crop yields alongside earthworm-yield responses to estimate the impact these invertebrates have on the global production of key crops. They found that impacts were “especially notable” in the global south – for example, earthworms contributed to 10% of overall grain production in sub-Saharan Africa. The scientists concluded that while the earthworm impact is important, they “suspect that other soil biota may be equally as important and that further study is needed”.
Intentional creation of carbon-rich dark earth soils in the Amazon
Ancient peoples in the Amazon used soil management practices to improve soil fertility and crop productivity, according to a new study. Researchers compared modern fertile soil called “dark earth” to that of ancient times, then used studies of present-day Indigenous practices to propose a model of how dark earth may have formed previously. They found that the “ancient and modern dark earth deposits have similar compositions and spatial distributions”, indicating that the former may have also been intentionally cultivated by Indigenous peoples of the time. The researchers wrote that the study “highlight[s] the value of Indigenous knowledge for sustainable rainforest management”.
Likely impacts of the 2022 heatwave on India’s wheat production
Environmental Research Letters
The spring 2022 heatwave in India reduced wheat production in some regions by up to 15% compared to a normal year, a new study found. The researchers built a statistical model using weather and wheat-production data from 1967-2018 across five Indian states that together produce around 90% of the country’s wheat. The results showed that the heatwave reduced wheat yields by 4.5% on a national scale. The likelihood and intensity of heatwaves are due to continue as a result of climate change, the researchers wrote, so “timely forecasts of their impacts on agriculture are critical”.
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]
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Cropped 27 September 2023: UN’s ‘climate ambition’ summit; Carbon offsets series; Brazil Indigenous victory
Read Cropped, @CarbonBrief’s fortnightly food, land and nature newsletter, here. This week: N’s ‘climate ambition’ summit; Carbon offsets series; Brazil Indigenous victory