Policy coherence towards sustainable development

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security30 Oct 2010Hans Opschoor

Even if the climate conference in Cancun this December manages to remedy the failures of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, it will in all likelihood only partially do so. We must learn to live with the fact that greenhouse gas emissions may peak later than many had hoped, and so temperatures are likely to still rise for decades. Climate change is only one global concern. Other ones include the emerging food crisis, the recession and –not to forget! – the global environmental challenges arising from a world economy that demands more environmental space than the biosphere can provide. Think, for example, of the nitrates issue, water problems and the disastrous impact of carbon footprints on biodiversity.

Many of the underlying factors of these problems can be traced back to agricultural production and food consumption patterns, and associated pressures on land . Global trends and patterns clearly aren’t sustainable yet. A revitalized agricultural system could also provide solutions to, or ways out of, these challenges. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture has taken the initiative to host an international conference from 31 October to 5 November 2010 in The Hague called ‘It’s Down 2 Earth‘. The aim of the conference is to develop a roadmap for a more sustainable, low-carbon, climate-resilient agriculture that also ensures food security – a ‘climate-smart agriculture’.

Solutions sought in one domain may actually imply undesirable trade-offs from another perspective. Harnessing biofuels may (and in case of large-scale production of some traditional fuels: will) lead to either large-scale expansion into natural or semi-natural environments, or crowd out food production. Schemes involving payment for environmental services may put extra burdens on forested land, and so on. Securing a land base for food or fuel production (bio, or otherwise) has even become an issue in international relations (as illustrated by China’s search for African resources or obtaining concessions in Surinam’s forests).

Climate-smart and food-secure agricultural policies and production systems certainly need to be coordinated with climate policies. In a strategy meeting – preceding the Down 2 Earth conference – called by the Society for International Development, Agri-ProFocus and the International Institute of Social Studies, actors and stakeholders from both sectors proposed that this coordination be looked at through the lens of what is called ‘policy coherence’.

Coherence towards what? In most national and EU policy documents this means ensuring consistency between the policies of various sectors. In UN documents (and, derived from that, in the policy of the Dutch Directorate-General for Development Cooperation), coherence is geared towards development objectives. In the UN Committee on Development Policy, we are advocating an even sharper focus: coherence towards sustainable development – which, as suggested above, is a very appropriate lens here.

What worries me is that the issue of coherence does not feature, or hardly so, in the conference’s background documents or in the programme headings. An FAO background paper mentions it once in the sense of aligning policies related to climate, agriculture and food. The notion of ‘converging agendas’ in another background paper (by the World Bank) broached the subject, but a more clearly set goal is needed to achieve more coherence towards sustainable development. From that perspective, the agenda of the Down 2 Earth conference touches on a crucial sub-area. I hope that the conference, while focusing on the climate-agriculture connection, will also remain aware of and (in its recommendations) sufficiently open to the other issues I mentioned earlier, such as biodiversity and nitrates.

Indeed, it was suggested at the strategy meeting that agriculture and food should be better embedded in the international climate change agenda, but also that climate, biodiversity and other global resource issues should be mainstreamed more into the food and agriculture agendas. In addition to things like climate-smart agro-technology, coherence for sustainable development highlights links with poverty reduction, trade (Doha!), price stability, enhanced market access and cooperation in R&D. Emerging issues identified at the meeting include transnational land acquisition in developing and transition countries, and giving external parties control over land (the ‘land grabbing’ issue). It may seem a lot to ask Down 2 Earth to effectively deal with all of the above, but then again, the people and agencies meeting in The Hague next month are sufficiently smart and knowledgeable. The question is, do they want it?