The determination for a sustainable future is palpable at EXPO City Dubai, the centre of COP28. As I cover food and agriculture, I aim to capture the essence of this pivotal moment.
The UAE was hosting COP28 and food and agriculture has been prioritized in the agenda. The Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture, and Climate Action was adopted unanimously by COP28 participants, sending a powerful message of unity and commitment to addressing the pressing challenges facing our global food systems. Indeed, echoing the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres on December 1st: “We cannot address climate change without transforming our food systems”, the agricultural sector remained firmly centre stage in most discussions.
As the Founder and Executive Director of a small NGO in Uganda–the Global Initiative for Young Environmental Stewards– committed to both youth empowerment and improving the management of our natural resources, my participation in COP28 reflects, on a small-scale, the journey we need to take as world citizens for sustainable, transformative change. That is, we must collaborate, see opportunities and work with commitment to turn will into action. We need to learn from the best knowledge, and, sometimes, we need to take risks and a leap of faith, to make lasting positive difference – just as friends and organisations came together to donate the funds needed, so that I, a native of a poor, rural fisher community in Lake Victoria, could be included. My early-orphaned status and isolated youth, shaped by the lack of parental support or the elite connections so pivotal to success in many societies, required this collaboration, trust, leap of faith and commitment from many to support inclusion of the less powerful and non-elite. The following blog highlights five critical ingredients I have gleaned from my participation in COP28 as necessary to create sustainable climate-friendly agriculture and food systems:
Inclusivity, creativity, innovation: Food systems Pavilion and Aim4C platform
The Food Systems Pavilion, described by Mariam Al Mheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, as “a melting pot of ideas and solutions,” served as a vibrant hub for inclusive dialogue and action. The Aim4C platform, spearheaded by the UAE, the United States, and the CGIAR system, further facilitated evidence-based decision-making, exchange and identification of effective agricultural interventions. Collaborating with diverse perspectives can create innovative climate-smart agricultural solutions.
Political will: High-level engagement and political commitments
COP28 has witnessed significant engagement from world leaders, underlining the recognition of the urgency for transformative change in food systems. The Leaders’ Declaration on Food Systems, Agriculture and Climate Action, described by EU President Ursula von der Leyen on December 4th as a “landmark achievement,” marked a historic moment. The declaration committed countries to integrating food and agriculture into their climate change goals. The declaration isn’t legally binding, however, but without the wish, the will…certainly nothing new will happen, and this declaration demonstrates high-level commitment.
Financial mechanisms and investments: Putting money where the mouth is
Teresa Anderson, Climate Policy Director at ActionAid noted on December 2nd, “We need to see more concrete commitments from developed countries to provide the necessary financial support for developing nations to implement sustainable agriculture practices”. Financing remains a critical barrier to transformative change”. The new commitment to the Loss and Damage fund is welcome news indeed. In my opinion, it is crucial to evaluate the scale, accessibility, conditionality, and sustainability of these funds. The amount pledged and its distribution across countries and initiatives will be critical to effectiveness: will the funds reach smallholder farmers and support diverse agro-ecological practices? Can smallholder farmers and local communities directly access them or must they navigate complex bureaucratic hurdles? Are there strings attached? Do conditions promote true transformative change or lock countries into unsustainable practices? Is there a long-term perspective? We know that sustainable agriculture requires ongoing support, not just one-time injections. In a larger picture, we can only hope that;
i) Funds should support community-led initiatives, not large-scale industrial agriculture solutions.
ii) I emphasize the need for transparent mechanisms to ensure funds are not lost to corruption/nepotism.
iii) initiatives build developing country capacities with technical expertise and infrastructure to effectively utilize the funds.
Despite the dedicated efforts, the Sharm El-Sheikh Joint Work on Implementation of Climate Action on Agriculture and Food Security (SSJW) reached a deadlock, as we witnessed it failing to deliver a concrete roadmap for transformation, raising concerns about its long-term efficacy in implementing impactful sustainable agriculture solutions.
Nevertheless, to me, not all hope is lost, the COP28 SSJW is not an endpoint. Parties should have renewed commitments to catalyze transformative change in agriculture and food systems that moves away from fossil fuels and work to combat global warming. Parties should reconvene and bridge the divides, prioritize practical solutions and inclusive partnerships to empower all actors. Also, the UAE’s $100 million contribution to the Loss and Damage Fund opened the door for other pledges which amounted to $700 million. Although falling short of what is needed to take care of global loss and damage costs, it nevertheless signals significant mind-set and behaviour change that I choose to view with optimism.
Focus on evidence-based solutions
Data and analytics are powerful tools, providing reliable information to inform decision-making, remarked Maria Fernanda Espinosa, President of the UN General Assembly. Initiatives like GODAN and the World Bank’s Climate Smart Agriculture platform highlight the potential of data-driven solutions in transforming food systems. Here, I would make a plea (building on point 1) for inclusivity of perspective and positionality in gathering data and evidence. In the negotiation rooms, one could already tell that collecting wider perspective data improves representativeness and accuracy and considers regional variation. Narrow disciplinary perspectives and homogenous positionality can skew results and miss opportunities. COP28 rooms were filled with people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, telling the beauty of inclusiveness and positionality. Such diverse collective effort maximises potential for sustainable and resilient agriculture and food system change.
Empowering youth and farmers
COP28 has emphasized the importance of youth participation and farmer-led initiatives in achieving sustainable food systems. The YOUNGO program has provided young people and smallholder farmers (young or less so) a platform to share their perspectives and contribute to decision-making processes, as I myself can testify. The Farmers’ Forum offered farmers and youth a space to exchange knowledge, advocate for their needs, and collaborate on solutions. Not to labour the earlier points, but let’s also remember that many farmers are women, many youths are female: gendered perspectives are critical for sustained change. Research and practice must consider specific contexts and types of farmers/youth for relevant solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all sustainable agricultural system.
Despite the progress made, several challenges remain. As Dr. Isfahan Elouafi, Director General of ICARDA, noted “Issues like methane emissions from livestock and the need for improved access to finance for smallholder farmers require continued attention.” The Global Goal on Adaptation and the Waste MAP necessitate further refinement and implementation strategies for effectiveness. Focus on youth empowerment and diversity inclusion is crucial for real change. Effective change also requires sustained support over longer timescales, as well as good communication, and willingness to work through the inevitable bumps on the road together. This points to the importance of governments and governance. Good governance. And good responsive leadership. Maybe the Loss and Damage Fund now sets up the right signals here. Time will tell. But time is something we are short on.
The reporter wishes to thank Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative for having supported him during his stay in Dubai for this just concluded COP28