Agenda 21:Climate change
SD DIMENSIONS / Environmental Policy, Planning & Management / Special
AGENDA 21 10 Land resources 11 Deforestation 12 Desertification 13 Mountains
14 SARD 15 Biodiversity Climate Energy

Progress Report
FAO, June 1997
Climate change

The challenge

Variation in climate is one of the main determinants of agricultural production in developing and developed countries alike. It is becoming increasingly clear that climatic variability is influenced not only by natural factors, but by human activities as well. This "human component" is believed to be responsible for "climate change" or "global warming", which is expected to interact with the "natural" component in a largely unknown way.

The uncertainty makes planning for climate change difficult. FAO has adopted a "no regrets" approach, emphasising measures that should be taken in any case - even in the absence of climate change - because they improve the efficiency of present farming. At the same time, they put farmers in a better position to adapt to or mitigate against it climate change, should it occur.

For example, it is likely that higher temperatures will produce more intense atmospheric circulation and a faster water cycle, leading to heavier and more erratic rains, stronger winds and more frequent floods. If farmers adapt to erratic rain as we know them today, they will no doubt be in a better position to respond to possibly worse conditions in the future.

The same approach applies to the main greenhouse gases of agricultural origin, such as carbon dioxide build-up due to deforestation, methane produced by ruminant digestion and rice paddies, and nitrous oxides from fertilizer use. In all three cases, the greenhouse gases losses are taken as signs of less than optimal use of resources which it is the farmer's economic interest to reduce.

Progress since UNCED

United Nations agencies concerned with climate issues have endorsed a landmark "Climate Agenda" that strengthens considerably the international response to the risks posed by climate variability and change. Formally known as the Integrating Framework of the International Climate Related Programmes, the Agenda was drawn up by the Coordinating Committee of the World Climate Programme (CCWCP) jointly with FAO, WMO, UNEP, UNESCO and its International Oceanographic Commission and the International Commission of Scientific Unions (ICSU).

The Climate Agenda aims at a better utilization of resources available within the UN system by harmonizing climate-related activities and promoting better national-international coordination. Its overall objective is to reduce the impact of climate variability - especially extreme events such as drought - and increasing the resilience of climate-sensitive sectors against climate variability, including man-made climate change.

It identifies four main thrusts for the future activities under WMO's World Climate Programme (WCP):

  • New frontiers in climate science and prediction, under the lead of WMO and covering particularly the need for better seasonal forecasts (i.e. those most crucial for adaptation of agriculture to climate variability);

  • Climate services for sustainable development, led by WMO, which includes development of products to enable countries to respond to climate extremes and climate-related calamities, especially drought and desertification;

  • Studies of climate impact assessments and response strategies to reduce vulnerability, led by UNEP, to identify options for national response strategies to reduce vulnerability to climate variability and change;

  • Dedicated observations of the climate system, under the lead of WMO.

The Climate Agenda proposes actions to be taken by both UN agencies and governments. Agencies are requested to align their climate-related activities according to the Agenda's priorities, define clear sets of objectives against which progress can be monitored, and establish a formal Inter-Agency Committee on the Climate Agenda (IACCA) to identify priorities, resource requirements and carry out monitoring.

Governments are requested to participate in the international climate-related programmes, strengthen their national programmes, assist developing countries in improving their capacities, make available resources for better coordination of the WCP, and endorse the Climate Agenda proposal in the governing bodies of UN agencies.

Key issues

Agricultural activities are responsible for large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases - some 25% of carbon dioxide through tropical land use (mainly deforestation), as well as a significant amount of methane and nitrous oxides. However, a sectoral approach to the problem is not enough - deforestation, for example, is largely driven by poverty. Similarly, while biofuels have the potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, thus helping to close the carbon cycle and reduce net carbon dioxide emissions, fuel-crops might compete with food production.

  • The impact of climate change
    The spatial distribution of climate change impact - "who wins, who loses" - is still unclear, although it seems likely that national vegetation (particularly forests and complex assemblages of species) will suffer, while crop agriculture should cope thanks to breeding and better management. It is also unclear how indirect effects will affect agriculture through, for instance, pests and diseases. Finally, research has recently shown that climate changes may be abrupt, suggesting that, despite improvements in modelling, present scenarios are no more reliable than those of some years ago. "No regrets" remains the most reasonable approach.

  • Better forecasting
    Seasonal forecasts of weather up to one year in advance are urgently needed to allow farmers to significantly reduce the risks associated with climate changeability. Some techniques are promising, and it is essential that FAO monitors ongoing research and makes new technologies available to the member countries.

  • Sea level rise
    Sea level rise is a particularly crucial issue in small islands and low-lying areas, where a large human population lives and from where a sizeable part of world food production originates. Protection measures can be taken, but they would probably absorb a large amount of the development resources of small island states; similarly, low-lying areas are densely populated and often affected by extreme atmospheric events such as cyclones, which make them extremely prone to floods in addition to sea level rise. The contamination of groundwater by sea water will also affect low-lying areas.

  • Realistic impact assessments
    In the simulation of the impacts of climate change on agriculture, equilibrium scenarios have been of little use; transient scenarios have more probability of being useful for agricultural impact assessment. In addition, most assessments assume impact of the "atmospheric scenario" on current agriculture/crops - this is unrealistic, as management and breeding should adapt gradually to the changing atmosphere, taking advantage of opportunities and avoiding risks. The minimum to be expected from serious impact studies is that they take into consideration current trends in world agriculture.

The role of FAO

The role of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is to help its member countries to reduce their vulnerability to climate change and improve their capacity to estimate amounts of - and reduce - greenhouse gas emissions. It disseminates information on climate change-related risks, assists members in fulfilling their international obligations under climate-related conventions and protocols, and seeks to ensure the reliability of climate change impact scenarios.

Technical activities include studies aimed at improving understanding of climate-agriculture systems and collection of background information. FAO is also conducting research on the role of carbon dioxide in climate change - there is scarce knowledge of how several known carbon dioxide-related effects, and other factors, will interact with crops. To clarify thinking on this issue, FAO has organised an expert meeting on the subject, and published a study on Global climate change and agricultural production.

FAO also aims at contributing to the net reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and emissions by promoting afforestation and alternative sources of energy. It has investigated the potential role of biofuels as a more sustainable substitute for fossil fuels. FAO issued in 1995 and 1996 several volumes of its Forest resources assessment, which evaluates the status of world forests in 1990. These publications - along with FAO's annual statistics on national paddy crop production and ruminant population - help in assessing global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Institutional arrangements

An FAO Interdepartmental Working Group on Climate Change, created in 1988, was FAO's first direct involvement with climate change per se. Among the group's functions were to assess the influence of agricultural practices on climate change, and vice versa, and assist in the preparation of documents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other UN bodies related to climate change and its potential impact on agriculture.

FAO collaborates with the Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to ensure that complex problems linked to agriculture are taken into consideration. FCCC activities are linked to conventions on desertification and biodiversity, which are of direct interest to FAO. The Organization also has a long association with WMO's World Climate Programme, which it joined in 1992.

FAO recently increased its formal involvement in climate and climate change activities through its participation in the international climate-related programmes, in particular the "Climate Agenda".

FAO contacts

René Gommes
Senior Officer, Agrometeorology
Tel.: 39-6-5225 4121

Agenda 21 Progress: Introduction | 10 Land | 11 Deforestation | 12 Desertification | 13 Mountains | 14 SARD | 15 Biodiversity | Climate change | Energy