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What did COP26 mean for Regenerative Agriculture?

Depending on who you speak to, COP26 will be described as a “game-changing” success, “a weak compromise”, or even “an utter failure”. With so many competing voices, it can be hard to understand what came out of the 26th Climate Change Conference of the Parties.

You may remember seeing our open letter to Alok Sharma and Peter Hill, President and CEO of COP26. Along with more than 50 other prominent voices in sustainable food and agriculture, we asked world leader’s to put soil health and a global transition to regenerative agriculture far higher on the agenda. 

We are so thankful to the community for getting behind our message and demanding a better future for people and the planet. If, as the Paris Agreement promised, we are going to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, we will need a level of collaboration and determination never seen before. With that in mind, it was heartening to see the regenerative agriculture movement come together with a shared message. 

Reasons To Be Hopeful 

We need decisive action on climate change and biodiversity loss, and we need it now. So it’s understandable that some people felt frustrated by vague promises and less ambitious targets. But it would be wrong to call the COP26 agreement a failure. 

Here are some of the promising outcomes for agriculture and food:

The World Bank committed to spending $25 billion in climate finance annually to 2025 through its Climate Action Plan, including a focus on agriculture and food systems. 

Governments acknowledge that soil and nutrient management practices and the optimal use of nutrients lie at the core of climate-resilient, sustainable food production systems and contribute to global food security. There was also an acknowledgement that sustainable agriculture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that pastures are considerable carbon sinks. 

The Global Methane Pledge, an US and EU-led commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, was signed by more than 100 countries responsible for about 50% of global methane emissions. The current food system is a significant source of methane, so this pledge presents an opportunity for genuine transformation. 

The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C), a joint venture led by the US and the United Arab Emirates, was signed by more than 30 countries committing to a $4 billion investment towards climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovations. 

16 countries agreed to launch a Policy Action Agenda for a Just Transition to Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Amongst other things, these plans will aim to remove subsidies that incentivise harmful agricultural practices and provide investment in research and development for agricultural innovation.  

45 governments pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming. All continents were represented, with countries including India, Colombia, Vietnam, Germany, Ghana, and Australia.  For example, Brazil plans to scale its ABC+ low carbon farming program to 72m hectares, saving 1 billion tons of emissions by 2030. The UK aims to engage 75% of farmers in low carbon practices by 2030, and Germany plans to lower emissions from land use by 25m tons in the same time frame. 

Reasons To Keep Fighting

The COP26 agreements were a move in the right direction. But the climate crisis is already here, so we need to be taking leaps rather than steps. Here are some areas where the COP26 agreements did not go far enough:

There is no reference to “regenerative agriculture” or any other close term in the agreed texts. The Africa group, Least-Developed Countries, and the EU were strong champions in pushing for the text to mention agroecology in the work by Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA). The US and India were opposed to it. Governments will discuss this point again at COP27… 

AIM4C relied heavily on technology like genetically modified crops, climate-smart agriculture, and R&D rather than sustainable farming methods such as regenerative agriculture. When looking for solutions to the climate crisis, nature-based solutions should be front and centre. 

And most importantly, all the COP26 announcements rely on voluntary commitments. With no enforcement mechanisms in place, some countries will not keep the promises made. With governments typically focused on shorter-term economic growth issues, we consistently see the climate crisis getting swept aside as “a problem for another time”. But the time to act is now, and we cannot leave the fate of humans, wildlife, and the living planet to non-binding commitments.   

Disconnection

Within the conference itself, there is a disconnection between the “blue zone” where governments and corporate representatives engage in high-level discussions behind closed doors and “the outside” where innovators, youth activists, Indigenous people demand a livable future on Earth. There is a sense that governments and big corporations are making the right noises, but there’s far less confidence in them listening to the people on the front lines. 

This disconnection has led to a flurry of announcements without details or action plans. It is hard for the public to decrypt whether the pledges and commitments are sincere or make a difference. Worryingly, many of the announcements on agriculture “refreshed” statements that had been made before COP26 rather than meaningful breakthroughs. 

With that in mind, Carbon Brief described the commitments as “a carefully orchestrated bombardment of announcements with very little backing.”

We don’t think COP26 was a complete waste of time. The food system had more attention than before, and we hope that this trajectory continues in future conferences. But the announcements were not backed up by meaningful plans or binding commitments, and biodiversity and climate change are still being treated as separate issues. In reality, climate change is the third-largest driver of biodiversity loss, and biodiversity loss and land-use change affect climate change. 

What Now?

It’s time to bridge the gap between the blue zone and the outside world. Here at Soil Heroes, we will continue to help the corporate world create real change. This means connecting sectors that want to become “Nature Positive” with projects that make a genuine difference to the recovery of the living planet.  

Going forward, we can’t keep treating climate change as a mathematical equation to be fiddled with in a closed room. For the sake of all living beings, we have to put nature at the forefront of climate and biodiversity recovery, and the COP commitments need to be binding. In the meantime, we will keep supporting those corporations that aren’t waiting for legal obligations to make their business part of the solution. Together, we can build a safer and brighter legacy for future generations.

In the video below, our CEO Gina Pattisson was interviewed by Regeneration International while at COP26 to express Soil Heroes’ views on the negotiations. 

Tom Ludwig Soil Heroes Carbon Insetting Regenerative Agriculture

Tom Ludwig

Business Development, UK

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