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COP26: Some reflections from Glasgow

The COP26 marathon is finally over and on Saturday the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed. Over ten pages there is lots of urging, noting, inviting, acknowledging, stressing and so on, but few decisions, beyond agreeing to meet again next year (more international travel, more per diems) and have dialogue on loss and damage. Nevertheless, the important momentum around the Paris Agreement remains, and the role of civil society’s protests and lobbying in assuring this is widely acknowledged.

There were a few unexpected additions to an otherwise bland statement, notably the focus on coal, which now the international community agrees to ‘phase down’ (rather than ‘phase out’ thanks to a last minute intervention by India).  But there were also gaps. Coal is rightly in the spotlight, but what about oil and shale gas? Loss and damage (compensation for climate change to those most affected, but least polluting) is acknowledged, but where is the funding (beyond some from Scotland and a limited offer from some philanthropists, there is nothing on the table)? And, with all the good talk about tackling deforestation, a lot of the action is wrapped up in dodgy deals around offsetting and net-zero accounting. I could go on.

Attending a few days of the COP in the first week was certainly very weird, so contrasting were the divergent positions. I didn’t see the Zimbabwean delegation (they didn’t have delegation offices nor a ‘pavilion’), nor did I get invited to the drunken beach party (in November… really?). Like most African delegations they were marginalised and peripheral to the main action. President Mnangagwa was not the only head of state to speak to a near empty hall or be shunned by attempts at diplomatic rapprochement.

Instead, the COP negotiation action was centred on horse-trading between the US, China and the EU, with a few interventions from the likes of India and the oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, while the small island states and ‘least developed country’ coalitions made effective noise from the margins. That any agreement was made at all is amazing, and the result of enormous hard work, including by the UK’s Alok Sharma as chair of the conference (although backing from the wider UK government was half-hearted at best).

Will this make a difference? I remain sceptical, as the fundamental challenge of addressing climate change – through the fundamental transformation of capitalist economies – remains untouched. Indeed, with corporate greenwash on show to such a sickening extent, much of the agenda has been captured through the slick jargon of carbon markets, offsets and net-zero targets. All these are approaches that fail to address the root causes of the problem and attempt to retain the status quo. They protect capitalist interests through a greenwashed ‘transition’, while very often exporting the problem elsewhere with devastating consequences.

Given that climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge humanity faces, Glasgow was disappointing. But it was the energy, radicalism and commitment in the spaces outside the main conference that give me hope. On my way home from Glasgow – in a state of exhaustion and with feelings of anger and frustration – I penned another piece for The Conversation with my reflections. This is reproduced below.   

COP26: Two worlds talked past each other – or never even met

Delegates arrive at the COP26 climate summit on November 4, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies

At the 2021 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, moving between the corporate slickness of the official “Blue Zone” (a UN-managed space which hosts the negotiations) and the wider fringe was quite a disconcerting experience for me. These were two different worlds. Everyone was committed to saving the planet, but there were highly diverging views about how to do it.

A welter of announcements on everything from coal to methane to forests dominated the opening days. Large numbers were discussed and ambitious targets were set. The bottom line was keeping alive the Paris agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, while assuring a ‘transition’ to a low-carbon future.

The contradictions were all too apparent at this year’s conference, known as COP26. The hired exhibition spaces in the conference centre were hosted by fossil fuel polluting countries and sponsored by large corporations. Corporate spin, also known as greenwash, abounded. There were a few African delegations with their own space and a vanishingly few civil society voices in the main venue.

Meanwhile, the discourse was very different in parallel fora. Here the talk was of inequality, climate justice and reparations. The focus was on radical transformations of systems of production and consumption. Many were critical of business-led and market-based solutions to climate change.

There was passion, commitment and a real sense of anger and frustration about the main conference. Huge suspicion around the corporate takeover of the climate agenda swirled, with much commentary on the double standards of the UK hosts, still proposing a new coalmine and oilfield as part of a so-called ‘transition’.

Unlike a decade ago, there was no climate scepticism on show. But how to address the underlying causes of climate change in capitalism remains the big, unaddressed challenge.

Pastoralists’ perspectives

As a researcher working on pastoralism as part of a European Research Council funded project, I was at the COP together with a delegation of pastoralists from different parts of the world, all linked to the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Pastoralist Peoples. We were definitely on the fringe of the fringe.

We hosted a photo exhibition exploring pastoralists’ own perceptions of climate change and uncertainty from across the world. We engaged in a dialogue with Scottish farmers and food groups, focusing on the future of livestock production under climate change. And our ‘sheep for the climate’ action brought a group together to discuss why livestock are not always bad for the planet, together with some fine rare breed sheep.


Read more: Cows and cars should not be conflated in climate change debates


When I managed to find a few events in the Blue Zone (not an easy task) relating to our research, they were mostly extremely disappointing. There were parallel conversations going on. If climate change is genuinely a shared challenge for all of humanity, dialogue between different viewpoints is vital.

Within the main conference, there was much talk about trees and ‘nature-based solutions’ across multiple sessions, for instance. The mainstream media hailed the agreement on deforestation, but a significant part of this simply replicates the failed programmes of the past. Under such programmes, forest protection in the global south is used as carbon offsets for large polluting companies and rich, consuming publics in the north.

The huge ecosystem restoration efforts being proposed potentially cause real problems for pastoralists. This is because large areas of open rangelands are earmarked for tree planting and biodiversity protection through exclusion. These so-called nature-based solutions are frequently new forms of colonialism, opening the gates to ‘green grabbing’, where land and resources are appropriated in the name of environmental conservation.

Methane was also a hot topic. The huge reductions in emissions proposed under the Global Methane Pledge have major implications for livestock production. Yet a session I attended was obsessed only with technical solutions -– feed additives, methane-reducing inhibitors and vaccines, seaweed supplements, even face masks for cows.

Once again, livestock systems were lumped together, without differentiating between highly polluting industrial systems and more climate-friendly extensive systems, such as African pastoralism. Indeed, many of the solutions proposed are already being practised in extensive grazing systems. The problem I guess is that these practices could not be patented and sold by agribusinesses.

Climate and capitalism

So how do these two worlds intersect? Everyone is keen on nature, no-one wants catastrophic climate change, but why are the solutions so divergent? At root, the two camps (and many in between) have different views on the role of capitalism in climate change.

For those in the Blue Zone, a long-term shift from reliance on fossil fuels is (largely) accepted. But capitalism in its new green guise, many argue, can save the day through technology investment and market mechanisms – and notably through the plethora of offsetting schemes that make up the net-zero plans.

By contrast, critical civil society and youth voices argue that capitalism is the root cause of the problem, together with its handmaiden colonialism. The only solution therefore is to overhaul capitalism and dismantle unequal global power relations. But how, through what alliances?

In a recent paper –- climate change and agrarian struggles – we explored the challenges of ‘eroding capitalism’ to create structural transformation and climate justice. However, in Glasgow I missed these crucial, political debates about ways forward. Are new styles of multilateral negotiation possible? Can genuine inclusion occur, going beyond the performance of participation where an ‘indigenous’ person or ‘community’ leader is co-opted? Can a true dialogue emerge about our common future?

I of course had very limited exposure to the thousands of simultaneous events. But my sense was that there was little meaningful interchange between different positions. Two worlds talked past each other or – because of restricted access, problems with visas and the high costs of attending –- never even met.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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COP26: why a more sophisticated debate on livestock and the climate is needed

COP 26 Blue Zone, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

Last week I was in Glasgow at COP26, shuttling between events in the Blue Zone and the fringe across the city. It was overwhelming, with a cacophony of conflicting voices and views.

The first week including a flood of announcements on coal, methane and forests. Ambitious targets were set and large numbers were bandied around. Meanwhile the negotiations continue behind closed doors as protestors marched over the weekend, urging more radical and concrete action.

I was with a delegation of pastoralists, members of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous and Peoples and Pastoralists network. We were aiming to highlight the more complex story around the links between livestock and climate change – going beyond the standard narrative that all meat and milk is bad.

WAMIP sheep for the climate action, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

We hosted a photo exhibition exploring climate change and uncertainty in different parts of the world, and at another event with Nourish Scotland discussed the future of livestock systems under climate change with Scottish farmers and food groups. Our ‘sheep for the climate’ action gathered a group (with some fine Hebridean sheep) in Govan dry docks to highlight our recent report, which asks the question, are livestock always bad for the planet?.

An article in The Conversation summarised some of the main points and is reproduced below (under CC license). Also, do check out the full report, plus the briefings and information sheets (in eight languages) at this link: https://pastres.org/livestock-report/  

Cows and cars should not be conflated in climate change debates

Cattle driven into the Kenyan capital Nairobi for new pasture amid a severe drought navigate through city traffic. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies

With world leaders gathered for the COP26 summit in Glasgow, there is much talk of methane emissions and belching cows. The Global Methane Pledge, led by the US and EU and now with many country signatories, aims to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This is seen as a “quick win” to reduce global warming and will have major implications for livestock production.

Livestock have become the villain of climate change. Some researchers claim that 14.5% of all human-derived emissions come from livestock, either directly or indirectly. There have been widespread calls for radical shifts in livestock production and diet globally to address climate chaos. But which livestock, where? As a new report I co-authored argues, it is vitally important to differentiate between production systems.

Not all milk and meat is the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.

Yet, in standard narratives about diet and production shifts, all livestock are lumped in together. Cows are misleadingly equated with polluting cars and beef with coal. The simplistic “all livestock are bad” narrative is promoted by campaign organisations, environmental celebrities, rich philanthropists and policymakers alike. Inevitably, it dominates media coverage. However, a much more sophisticated debate is needed.

Delving into data

Our report delves into the data and highlights the problems with using aggregate statistics in assessing the impacts of livestock on the global climate.

Some types of livestock production, especially those using industrial systems, are certainly highly damaging to the environment. They generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and cause serious water pollution. They also add to deforestation through demand for feed and expanding grazing areas, for example. And, reducing the amount of animal-source foods in diets, whether in the global north or south, makes much sense, both for the environment and for people’s health.

But industrial systems are only one type of livestock production. And aggregate emission figures do not pick up the nuances of this reality. Looking across life-cycle assessments – a technique widely used to assess the impacts on climate change from different agri-food systems – we found some important gaps and assumptions.

One is that global assessments are overwhelmingly based on data from industrial systems. A frequently quoted paper looking at 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors only focused on “commercially viable” units, mostly from Europe and North America. However, not all livestock are the same, meaning that global extrapolations don’t work.

Research in Kenya, for example, shows how assumptions about emissions from African animals are inaccurate. Such livestock are smaller, have higher quality diets due to selective grazing and have physiologies adapted to their settings. They are not the same as a highly bred animal in a respiration chamber, which is where much of the data on emission factors comes from. Overall, data from extensive systems are massively under-represented. For instance, a review of food production life cycle assessments showed that only 0.4% of such studies were from Africa, where extensive pastoralism is common across large areas.

Another issue is that most such assessments focus on emissions impacts per animal or per unit of product. This creates a distorted picture; the wider costs and benefits are not taken into account. Those in favour of industrialised systems point to the high per animal methane emission from animals eating rough, low-quality forage on open rangelands compared to the potential for improved, methane-reducing feeds in contained systems. This misses the point: a wider, more integrated systems approach must encompass all impacts, but also benefits. For instance, some forms of extensive grazing can potentially increase soil carbon stocks, adding to the already significant store of carbon in open rangelands.

Then there’s the fact that methane and carbon dioxide have different lifetimes in the atmosphere and are not equivalent. Methane is a short-lived but highly potent gas. Carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere effectively forever. Reducing warming can be addressed in the short term by tackling methane emissions, but long term climate change needs to focus on carbon dioxide. It therefore makes a big difference how different greenhouse gases are assessed and how any “global warming potential” is estimated. Simply put, cows and cars are not the same.

It also matters what baseline is used. Pastoral systems may not result in additional emissions from a “natural” baseline. For example, in extensive systems in Africa domestic livestock replace wildlife that emit comparable amounts of greenhouse gases. By contrast, industrial systems clearly generate additional impacts, adding significant environmental costs through methane emissions from production, the importation of feed, the concentration of livestock waste and fossil fuel use in transport and sunk infrastructure.

Climate justice

A more rounded assessment is necessary. Extensive livestock contribute to emissions, but it’s simultaneously true that they produce multiple environmental benefits – including potentially through carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity and enhancing landscapes.

Animal-source foods are also vital for nutrition, providing high density protein and other nutrients, especially for low-income and vulnerable populations and in places where crops cannot be produced.

Across the world livestock – cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks, llamas and more – provide income and livelihoods for many. The world’s rangelands make up over half the world’s land surface and are home to many millions of people.

As countries commit to reducing methane emissions, a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, lest major injustices result. The danger is that, as regulations are developed, verification procedures approved and reporting systems initiated, livestock systems in Africa and elsewhere will be penalised, with major consequences for poor people’s livelihoods.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Biodiversity and climate change: why tree planting schemes may not be the answer

The first phase of the delayed Biodiversity Convention of the Parties (COP15) ended last week. There has been much talk of linking the twin crises of biodiversity and the climate. Grand plans for protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 have been hailed, and so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ are all the rage.

Massive tree planting schemes are being suggested, supported through significant new finance for ‘offset’ schemes to meet net zero obligations. The areas involved are huge. In 2011 the United Nations’ Bonn Challenge for example proposed that 350 million hectares of land would be ‘restored’ through tree planting by 2030. National governments and regional blocs too have massive plans for more trees, including notorious projects such as the Sahelian ‘Great Green Wall’. The AFR100 initiative, funded by multiple international donors including the World Bank, has committed to afforesting 100 million hectares in Africa over the coming decade. And not wanting to be outdone, the World Economic Forum is proposing the planting of a trillion trees.

Restoration myths

But is this always a good idea? Not necessarily. Many of the areas earmarked for tree planting are rangelands, areas of biodiverse rich grassland with scattered trees present such as in the savanna ecosystems that dominate southern Africa. Estimates vary but many millions of hectares of rangelands have been identified by the World Resources Institute (WRI) based in Washington DC and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich for forest ‘restoration’. This assumes that these are ‘degraded’ forests in need of rehabilitation, rather than highly productive, biodiverse ecosystems that support many livestock and people. According to Joseph Veldman and colleagues such global restoration assessments may massively overestimate the climate mitigation of tree planting schemes.

In a 2019 paper, called ‘the trouble with trees’, William Bond (a prof from UCT) and colleagues showed how the areas identified for tree planting overlap with grassy biomes (including rangelands), wildlife species richness and livestock production. In fact, as Veldman and colleagues show, 40% of the WRI map – some 1 billion hectares – was focused on grassy biomes, highlighting an ‘inconvenient reality’ for large-scale restoration plans. As Catherine Parr and colleagues argue, tropical grassy biomes remain poorly understood and are under threat. In particular, ‘restoration’ through tree planting in such areas would have major negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and pastoral livelihoods.

Grassland ecosystems and carbon dynamics

These forest restoration assessments – and the resulting interventions such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative – result from a basic misunderstanding of rangeland ecosystems that exist across more than half the world’s surface. This is simply ‘bad science’. Rangelands are what Bond calls ‘open ecosystems’, variegated mixes of trees and grasslands existing together in savannahs and parklands. These are maintained by grazing, fire and human actions, and are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

Grasslands may also fix carbon more effectively than forests, although estimates vary wildly. In the geological past, the expansion of grasslands may have locked up so much carbon it resulted in a cooling of the atmosphere, precipitating an ice age. Grasslands have extensive root systems and high turnover with dead vegetation matter regularly incorporated into the soil, often assisted by grazers. Grasslands can be more reflective of solar radiation too compared to darker forests, and so may act to cool the earth. Yet carbon forestry schemes focus on the above-ground biomass, and tree biomass is much more visible and measurable than the poorly understood below-ground carbon dynamics among root networks and in the soil. In other words, these are not degraded lands in need of restoration to a ‘natural’ forest.

Forest obsessions

This obsession with closed forests has a long history, seeing grasslands or savannas as ‘degraded’ forests, and forests as the desirable protector of environments. Many of the current well-meaning attempts to advocate reforestation replicate colonial discourses, where foresters from northern climes influenced nascent forest departments across the world.

For example, the idea of the taux de boisement normal – the percentage of forest cover required by a ‘civilised’ nation – took hold in the French colonies from the 1800s, and since then tree planting has become part of what Diana Davis describes as a civilising mission to offset ‘desiccation’ and the assumed ravages of desert advance. Equally, the negative description of rangelands as ‘wastelands’ in India has framed attempts at environmental rehabilitation from the colonial era to today.

These basic misunderstandings of rangeland ecologies persist today, and are promoted by the likes of WRI along with multiple well-meaning projects and agencies through their advocacy of ‘forest restoration’. These efforts reinforced and in turn commoditised by the panoply of carbon forestry projects under schemes such as REDD+ and through investment projects available through growing voluntary carbon markets, seen as central to meeting ‘net-zero’ commitments globally.

The problems with tree planting in rangelands

So what are the problems with tree planting? Here are seven points (see also this excellent article by Forrest Fleischman and colleagues, as well as a recent paper on India and associated Twitter thread).

  • Most tree planting projects focus on exotic, fast-growing trees. These are assumed to produce the most carbon the quickest. But fast-growing trees planted in rangelands can quickly become a problem. Ask many across Africa about the issues they have with the invasive Prosopis juliflora, which was originally introduced by aid programmes to provide fuel wood. Exotic tree planting also eliminates existing grassland ecosystem biodiversity, which has emerged over millennia through the interactions of vegetation and herbivores.
  • Carbon projects require managed tree planting to claim carbon credits against an assumed degraded baseline. The easiest approach is the planting of large plantations. These are easy to manage and the carbon credits can quickly be calculated and cashed in. But plantations exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity too. A rush to net zero through tree planting, Oxfam argues in a recent report, could have major implications for land rights and food security.
  • Rushed planting of trees in unsuitable environments can lead to large losses of planted trees. The incentives to earn a quick buck on carbon credits can result in huge damage. Areas are cleared, trees are planted and then they die, with no benefits to anyone. In the odd calculations of carbon credits, this may have resulted in ‘avoided deforestation’, but the consequence is often the laying waste of environments.
  • Tree planting in grasslands, aiming for a managed, stable forested area, runs counter the natural ecosystem dynamics of such areas. In tropical grassy biomes the amount of trees and grasslands fluctuate, with patches of each increasing and decreasing because of rainfall, fire and other factors. Imposing a regularised regime of management on such a setting, assuming baselines and calculating carbon gains makes no sense.
  • Tree planting schemes where people and animals are excluded can result in the massive build-up of flammable herbaceous material. Without regulated ‘cold burn’ fires, the consequences of forest fires can be devastating, as seen around the world in recent months. This can result in huge losses of carbon – exactly the opposite of the plan.
  • Water cycles may be disrupted by tree planting schemes, as fast-growing trees need a lot of water to grow. By contrast, grasslands have high levels of infiltration and are important in maintaining hydrological systems. Carbon schemes however do not put a price on water, so trees win out.
  • The landscape value of tree plantations – serried rows of exotic trees – may be lower than that of long established grassland systems, where cultures of livestock keeping and wildlife use have created a lived in landscape. Rangelands may be anthropogenically created, but they are not necessarily degraded and in need of rehabilitation.

Enhancing dynamic ecologies: putting people first

Trees are natural elements of grassland landscapes and of course have many benefits for people and environments, providing shade, fruits, browse, leaf litter and so on. In some cases, new planting may be desirable, but more often encouraging regrowth of existing trees as part of variegated landscapes makes much more sense as a route to capturing and sequestering carbon to meet the climate challenge. As Susie Vetter explains:

“Tree planting should enhance and diversify local livelihoods, avoid the transformation of tropical grasslands and savannahs, promote landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity, and distinguish residual carbon stocks from those derived from reforestation and afforestation.”

Many current pronouncements tout massive tree planting schemes with huge targets for areas to be covered, linked often to major finance for ‘carbon offset’ initiatives to meet net-zero climate obligations. These are vigorously backed by powerful international conservation organisations in alliance with big business, sometimes the worst fossil fuel polluters themselves. But we should be sceptical. So-called ‘nature-based solutions’ need to involve people first, otherwise they will fail; tree planting is of course a social and political issue.

This article was written by Ian Scoones. An earlier version was posted on the PASTRES blog.

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Models for integrated resource assessment: biases and uncertainties

What are the most appropriate ways of understanding changes in natural resource change in rural areas, particularly in the context of climate change? How can we make use of data that is patchy and uncertain? How can models help decision-making about future management?

These questions are at the heart of three recently published journal articles on Zimbabwe. The three papers focus respectively on climate impacts on livestock feed (in Nkayi), land use intensity patterns (in Wedza) and the prevalence of grass fires (in Mazowe). What connects them is the use of remotely-sensed data on land use with an integrated modelling approach, aimed at policy prescriptions for resource management.

This style of research on natural resource use has become more and more common in recent years, as increasingly detailed data derived from satellite systems has become freely available. Integrated assessment models, modelling everything from climate impacts to crop production to land-use to water scarcity, can be linked to geo-referenced spatial data and parameterised with field-based data collection.

As a style of inquiry, integrated modelling approaches have a number of advantages. Diverse data sources can be combined, and predictions made around key policy issues. But there are also problems – and, in different ways, these three papers illuminate some of them.

Five problems with integrated resource assessment modelling

First, models are always framed by assumptions around problems and solutions. Each of these studies adopts a particular stance, resulting in recommendations for interventions to address the highlighted problem. So, climate change results in feed gaps for livestock, which can be solved by ‘climate smart’ adaptation measures in Nkayi. High land use intensity – excessive extraction of primary production – means that ‘hot spots’ of land degradation ‘externalities’ can be identified for intervention measures in Wedza. Increasing fire frequencies are assumed to be universally a bad thing, not a necessary consequence land clearance or a reflection of natural cycles in savannah dynamics, as fuel load builds up. Instead, recommendations, including the deployment of fire teams, creating fire-breaks and developing monitoring systems, are put forward for Mazowe.

Second, the uncertainties embedded in complex models are legion, meaning that any predictions have to be heavily qualified. These papers all acknowledge important uncertainties. In the assessment of land use intensity against a baseline of net primary production in Wedza, these arise, for example, from problems of estimating primary production in the baseline case, especially below-ground. Linking biomass harvesting to specific areas when livestock move is also recognised as a source of uncertainty. In the analysis of climate impacts on fodder management options in Nkayi, the uncertainties surrounding climate predictions across scenarios is acknowledged, and the model in turn is developed with parameters that are constrained within a ‘reasonable range of uncertainty’. Yet, by the end of the papers, important uncertainties are seemingly put aside in the desire to reach a definitive conclusion for the way forward. The apparent need for prediction, directions for ‘decision-making’ and control-oriented intervention are all-consuming.

Third, the style of argument too often leads to a closing down of discussion of more diverse options. All three papers are structured in the standard way of scientific papers, with propositions tested according to a set of methods, leading to results and conclusions. In the methods section, the qualifications, imperfections and uncertainties are duly noted. But, by the time the results are presented, around a particular quantitative model, such difficult issues are quietly put to the background. By the time of the conclusions, they have all but disappeared, and much stronger causal, predictive statements offer a definitive way forward, frequently hinted at by the original framing. For example, a model of land use intensity Wedza, focused on the extraction of net primary productivity, inevitably side-steps questions of how landscapes are understood, and how future resource use is seen by different groups of people. The social and political dynamics of change are not part of the storyline, despite the attempt to link resource use with different wealth groups.

Fourth, models are only models – simplified ways of thinking about the world – and they certainly can be helpful in thinking through options. But sometimes the assumptions just don’t make sense. Models to have any purchase need some ground-truthing, and some stress-testing with reality. The paper on grass fires shows clearly that there are no statistically significant differences across tenure types in fire frequency and extent. In other words, land reform farmers cannot be blamed, but without field based data, the paper is unable to explain the patterns, and instead uses a model that extrapolates future patterns from the past. In respect of fire, this is rather unlikely – fires due to land clearing will decline as farms and fields are established, while hunting will decline as game animal populations are eliminated. As a result, the regression-based models become detached from likely future realities. Instead, the regressions play a political role: by extrapolating increases in fires, they justify a set of externally-defined interventions.

Finally, the rush to a definitive recommendation for policy too often results in missing out on complex system dynamics, histories and contexts. The paper in this trio on livestock fodder systems, for example, assumes that the ‘feed gap’ will be filled by improved fodder quantity and quality, including the growing of fodder crops and the application of fertiliser to crops to improve stover. And this in dryland Nkayi? Surely not. The paper acknowledges that past attempts at improved fodder management have consistently failed, but does not probe why in the rush to provide an intervention-friendly recommendation aligned with a ‘climate-smart’ intervention narrative.

Styles of science: how to broaden out inquiry and open up debate

All three of these papers make important arguments and present significant data. They all have been peer-reviewed in respectable journals (Agricultural Systems, Ecological Economics and Geocarto International). The data is (mostly) of high quality, the models are consistent (if problematic) and the arguments are clearly made (although open to challenge). But reading these (and these are only exemplars of many, many others, perhaps rather unfairly singled out), the five wider concerns raised above kept coming back.

It makes me uneasy when a style of science closes down debate. Uncertainties are not embraced and alternative interpretations are not given space. An assumption that the end-point must be a science-based ‘smart’ intervention means other possibilities – more social, political for example – are not countenanced. This is less a critique of the particular methods and models, but more the style of policy-oriented science, centred on integrated assessment modelling, now central to a huge industry of ‘global change’ research.

What might an alternative approach look like? Modelling that takes uncertainty seriously would not close down to definitive solutions, but would aim to open debates up. Models that are interrogated with deep, field-based data, thus triangulating between modelling approaches, result in greater robustness and wider interpretation. When reading the papers, I had to ask: are there alternatives to new fodder regimes and crop fertilisation to address the consequences of climate change on livestock production in Nkayi? Of course there are! Does fire management have to be focused always on fire prevention; are fires always bad? Of course not! But such alternatives were not debated.

Suggesting diverse, alternative options for the future – different interpretations and solutions from an open approach to data, evidence and integrated assessment modelling – allows for an engaged, inevitably political debate, about what makes sense for whom. This would make for papers that are less neat, but perhaps ultimately more useful.

This is the fourth of a short series of blogs profiling recent papers on Zimbabwe.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones

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Climate negotiations open in Paris: a perspective from southern Africa

Today COP 21 opens in Paris. Over two weeks a new climate deal will hopefully be agreed. It is a critical juncture for humanity. As high level officials discuss options in these negotiations, many people around the world are already living with climate change and uncertainty.

In Southern Africa, the effects of what is expected to be a massive El Niño event are being felt. El Niño is a natural climatic event when the equatorial waters in the eastern Pacific ocean warm. It occurs every few years, but this one is expected to be the most extreme ever. El Niño disrupts regular weather patterns, increasing the risk of droughts in some areas and heavy rainfall and floods in others. The consequences can be severe food shortages, as well as heightened risk of floods, disease and forest fires.

The UN is offering dire warnings, and contingency and emergency plans are being drawn up. Although El Niño is not due to anthropogenic climate change, climate scientists argue that the effects can be exacerbated. Are we witnessing the future of climate uncertainty under climate change?

There have been a number of El Niño events in southern Africa over the years, upsetting the older pattern of regular cycles of higher and lower rainfall. In the early 1990s, we studied the consequences in our book on dryland agriculture in Zimbabwe. Massive livestock deaths were recorded as grazing ran out, and people were plunged into deep insecurity. The economy lost 8 per cent of GDP, with ramifications across sectors. Our book ‘Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa – Lessons from Zimbabwe’ (sadly out of print, but you can still get it second-hand) was not especially framed by climate change debates, but reading it again now, it is highly relevant. Back then, we were indeed investigating what would now be called ‘climate adaptation’ responses in the context of extreme drought.

In Zimbabwe, the rains are certainly late and the prognosis from the Met Department is not good. The Zimvac assessment, echoed in recent press releases by UN agencies, warn of up to 1.5 million people being food insecure at the end of the season. As commented before, these estimates have to be qualified, but there is little doubt that the situation is severe. As ever, food security numbers are being used as a political football, and a spokesperson for Tendai Biti’s new PDP party, Jacob Mafume, clearly couldn’t resist making up a completely random number, claiming that 3.5 million people were in need of food aid.

This sort of irresponsible numbers game helps no-one, but disputes over figures should not detract from the serious business of responding to potential major drought impacts. Contingency planning is an essential task when disasters are potentially in the offing. Donor funds are flowing into Zimbabwe, but the lack of state capacity, and the continued hesitance of donors, NGOs and government working together, is hampering preparations.

But for the longer term, building local resilience to respond to climate uncertainty is essential. This inevitably must be central to any development option for the future in the context of living with climate change. No matter what happens in Paris, we will all have to live with the consequences of several degrees of global temperature rise.

This means more droughts, more floods, and less certainty for rainfed agricultural production and livestock keeping in particular. Resilience building has become a favoured buzzword, but it must start with what people already do, and build on local solutions and knowledge. This means storing more water, shifting to more drought resilient crops, creating livestock systems that can be buffered against climate shifts and more.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

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Tackling climate change: the contested politics of forest carbon projects in Africa

Tackling climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our age. And this year is a crucial moment with the Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris in December 2015 hopefully to forge a new climate agreement. Forests, carbon and their management are high on the agenda, and a new book has just come out from the STEPS Centre, edited by Melissa Leach and myself. It’s called Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa (take a peek at some of the content, check out the reviews and chapter listing, and use code DC361 and get 20% off buying it!).

The book dissects the issues, and offers a bunch of case studies from across Africa, including a great chapter on Zimbabwe by Vupenyu Dzingirai and Lindiwe Mangwanya from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences at UZ. This focuses on the Kariba REDD project in Hurungwe, one of a number of districts involved, with the whole project covering to date a massive 1.4 million hectares of land along the Zambezi valley.

Deforestation and land degradation globally contribute significantly to carbon emissions, and addressing these has become a major policy priority. Carbon offset approaches, mediated by carbon markets and facilitated by international accords and global climate finance, have become especially popular. In such schemes carbon emissions in one part of the world (usually the industrialised north) are offset by initiatives that reduce emissions in another part of the world where there are plentiful forests, and opportunities for new carbon sequestration (such as Africa). Such projects can, it is argued, additionally focus on poverty reduction and biodiversity protection, creating a ‘win-win’ scenario, rather than a feared ‘green grabbing’.

This is the theory; but what of the practice? The book is about what happens on the ground when carbon forestry projects – existing in various guises, often under the umbrella of the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme – arrive. In this new field of environment and development practice, there are many new players, a whole panoply of models, processes and procedures for verification and monitoring, and a hot politics of authority and control. Understanding what works, and what doesn’t is crucial, and the various chapters offer some salutary lessons on the current fad for market-based offset approaches to carbon mitigation.

The detailed case studies come from seven countries, from west, east and southern Africa, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The chapters ask what actually happens when carbon forestry projects unfold in particular places: who wins, and who loses out, and what are the consequences – for carbon sequestration and offsetting, as well as poverty reduction? As all the cases show, carbon projects do not arrive on a blank slate. All sites have long histories of intervention, including a whole array of forestry, environmental protection and development projects. These have shaped and reshaped livelihoods and landscapes, and generated experiences and memories that influence local responses to new interventions.

The chapters cover a huge range of African ecologies, different carbon forestry project types and an array of national political-economic contexts. In all chapters, the authors ask: what difference does carbon make? What political and ecological dynamics are unleashed by these new commodified, marketized approaches, and how are local forest users experiencing and responding to them? Carbon forestry projects – as previous interventions in forest use, ownership and management – have not been the panacea some had expected. Multiple conflicts have emerged between land owners, forest users and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects not straightforward.

In the Zimbabwe case, for example, the project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore  farmers and the Rural District Council, offering a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and ‘alternative livelihood’ projects  in exchange for protecting forests, and planting trees. As the notional ‘traditional’ and ‘administrative’ owners of the land, they should have the authority. But they are pitched against powerful forces with other ideas about resource use and economic priorities. These including politically-connected tobacco farmers who migrated to the area through the 1980s and 90s; indeed at the invitation of the same local Korekore leaders now backing carbon. Today, they are making considerable sums of money, and destroying substantial areas of forest when curing. With the land reform in 2000 there was a further wave of in-migration from those displaced from the nearby Karoi farmers, notably farmworkers of diverse origins. They were encouraged to settle on the frontiers, often inside game and safari areas as a buffer to wildlife for the long-standing residents. They too have cleared land and reduced forest cover, and survive through a mix of farming, hunting and gathering, as well as labouring on the tobacco farms. The new social, cultural and economic landscape, evolving through waves of migration, is one where a simple REDD project is immensely difficult to implement, as divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority and more divide ‘the community’ that is notionally involved in the project. The assumption that climate mitigation through carbon offsetting in Africa’s forests is going to be easy is thoroughly challenged by the Zimbabwe case – as all the others in the book.

Across the book, we argue that a new politics of access and control over forests and their carbon is emerging, making the noble aims of climate mitigation through carbon forestry very challenging indeed. There’s a need to address conflicts head on, and to develop a more politically sophisticated approach to carbon governance in complex landscapes than has been seen to date. For all those engaged in the debates in the lead up to Paris and beyond, the book points to ways forward that take account of the complex, layered politics of Africa’s forest landscapes. As Jesse Ribot from the University of Illinois says: “Carbon forestry is privatizing, commodifying and financializing the world’s forests, recasting relations between state and market forest landscapes. This book illuminates the fraught political economy of this transformative moment”.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Are livestock destroying the planet?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across Africa. On Zimbabweland there have been many blogs on this theme focusing on Zimbabwe’s livestock and marketing systems. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions?

A special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change late last year offered some new data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to the Economist weighing into the debate. The Economists’ summary of a paper by Mario Herrero from CSIRO in Australia and colleagues from IIASA and ILRI suggested that the solution to the high climate change impacts of traditional livestock rearing was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”. Why is this position adopted? The Economist explains:

… More acres are given over to feeding animals than to any other single use. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres. A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus). A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication published recently that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor. So should Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa be abandoning livestock production to save the planet? Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer?

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. The data in the PNAS article is clear. Inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard.

But the assessment does not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with studies such as the PNAS one is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

Simon Fairlie produced a brilliant book a few years back, Meat: a Benign Extravagance. It even got George Monbiot to change his views on meat eating. The book argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. The same applies in the great climate and environmental impact debate, a theme that is picked up in the book, and in a recent paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following the Economist article Mario Herrero distances himself from the claims made by the Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but how then can the extensive savannah grasslands of Africa be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

The problem with studies of this sort – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. In this case focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with, often put to one side (or in very long appendices of supplementary data). In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equiibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management. Our book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa, highlighted through many case studies the way pastoralism contributes to development in the Greater Horn of Africa. A similar case could be made for the livestock dependent areas of Zimbabwe, as I and many others have long argued.

Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

 

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