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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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