On Friday, I was a participant in a seminar hosted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Forestry and Agriculture. The topic was the interlinkages between the newest scientific insights related to climate change and the future of agricultural and ‘green’ growth in general. My take-away thinking back with a bit of distance? We are great at analysing what is happening. Worse at predicting what the consequences will be. And worst at coming up with innovative options for mitigation and adaptation.
But let me back up a little –
The first speakers talked about the latest IPCC report, and in particular the chapter on food security and climate change. John R. Porter, the chapter’s lead author, was presenting it, which was kind of cool. I didn’t realize that this was the first time in an IPCC assessment that agriculture and food were really focused on – but better late than never I guess? In general, the chapter doesn’t really tell us more than what we already know – climate change will have real and serious consequences on our ability to produce food, including through hotter and drier summers, more storms, more flooding, and more stress for both crops and animals. For instance, hotter summers in the Mediterranean region will affect the ability of cows there to give milk and for pigs to become inseminated.
Interesting from a Swedish perspective was that the Northern European regions are indeed predicted to be net ‘winners’ of climate change, though all speakers took care to stress that in today’s globalized world, there are only countries that lose more or less. Still, higher temperatures would extend the Swedish growing season – which is rather short now – and bring amenable growing conditions further north than present. Important for the forestry sector, more CO2 in the atmosphere might also lead to quicker photosynthesis and more rapid production of plant material. On the other hand, the warmer conditions also allow parasites to exist in regions that haven’t really had to deal with them yet; and if winters are warmer, the forestry sector will have problems transporting the logged trees out (normally, they do it in winter when the ground is frozen). Furthermore, as an industry representative laid out, they are already dealing with more frequent strong winds that produce more storm felling.
Thus far the IPCC conclusions. However, interesting insight – Porter also stressed that the IPCC is policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive. That is, as another panelist concluded,
Science has done its part. Now action is needed by business and policy makers.
And this is where initiatives right now fall lamentably short.
Several initiatives were briefly touched upon – the concept of sustainable intensification and its metrics, economic concepts such as payments for carbon sinks and the current carbon credit market [an interesting and more critical perspective on carbon sinks also here], and even biotechnological innovations in plant and animal breeding – one scientist talked about the possibilities of breeding cows for lower methane emission rates (apparently there are slight genetic differences) and about adopting plant species to resistance toward the new pests and parasites that might be moving north with warmer temperatures.
Also of concern was the need to focus more on the demand side, and to focus on how much and what kind of food we really need to produce. An audience member briefly raised the issue of food waste, there was a rather bizarre back-and-forth on biofuels [first, most panelists agreed that there was a competition of biofuels with food; then, an audience member stated that it was an ‘unnecessary and overestimated conflict’ which should be looked at in perspective, e.g. how much other potential agricultural land is used for golf courses? Cotton production? Pet/horse food production?; in addition, she said bio-ethanol was the only replacement option for personal transportation and it was thus out of the question to question it; and all of a sudden, all panelists did a 180 and agreed with her], and we briefly talked about food prices and CO2 taxes after I brought it up in a question, though the panelists agreed that it was a politically difficult issue. [Other fun fact: With one other graduate student, I was one out of 2 vegetarians at the lunch. At a conference about climate change and food. :/] But there was no visionary policy advice, no spirited debate, no fire behind the presentations in my opinion. The speakers lamented the lack of vision exhibited right now in the European Parliament elections, but they showed very little vision of their own of how a green economy should operate in the context of climate change.
One statement that a lot of speakers actually agreed on was the following:
Economics needs to reinvent itself again, and be linked to the real value within our world, namely the ecological values. Economists have to think more outside of the box and be more creative in coming up with solutions.
Interestingly enough, even the lone representative of the business sector (he was Sustainability Director in a company for ‘global hygiene and forestry products’ – which I interpreted as ‘we mainly make toilet paper’ but I could be wrong) agreed that a new economic system was necessary, in which the right incentives are set for companies to behave more sustainably – since right now it doesn’t really hurt the bottom line to not do so. Another point he brought up – they are one of the only processing companies worldwide that also own their own forests because it has become such a PR liability, what with NGOs pointing fingers at the (un)sustainable practices of corporations. What then happens however is that the ecologically most sensitive areas are avoided by the big companies with the larger CSR budget and rather are logged by smaller suppliers who could care even less about sustainability but whose name is not prominent enough to become a news item. 🙁
Another perspective that was brought up multiple times was this one:
Humans seem to be more skilled at learning from their past than at learning from their future.
Aka people won’t sacrifice in the short run for long run gains – so don’t even try.
I fear my thoughts are a little rambling since there were a number of points I was intrigued by, but to come back to my main impression – there were people with huge scientific prominence and clout in that room and yet the permeating feeling was rather defeatist and a little ‘apres moi le deluge’ – after me comes the flood. Though there was agreement that markets are amoral and clearly not suited to determine the right price and supply based on ecological criteria, it seemed politically too sensitive to argue for more intensive government involvement, and this is a country where widespread government involvement in all areas of life – including in agricultural policy for most of the 20th century – is a commonly accepted procedure. I know it’s a controversial topic, but can’t that be stated at the outset and then a controversial debate could be held? I have the feeling that if scientists are supposed to be ‘apolitical’ there is very little opportunity for them to make a real contribution to agricultural policy-making which will inherently have to make ideological and visionary choices.
There was a great consensus in the room that this debate is necessary; however, it wasn’t being held at that point. And as the moderator wisely concluded, without that debate we can’t really move forward, either on climate change mitigation or on adaptation measures. As Alice in Wonderland so perfectly depicted:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Edited to add: All presentations are now on their homepage if you want to check them out!