Science, Science and Society

GRA inaugural meeting shows strong will to succeed

This week marks the inaugural meeting of the Global Research Alliance (GRA).

For those of you not familiar with it, it’s probably one of the best things to come out of last year’s largely-failed Copenhagen talks.  The idea had first budded in late 2008, but was officially launched Dec last year.  And, proudly, it’s an initiative suggested and spearheaded by New Zealand.  Comprised of some 28 countries (including all the largest emitters) and some observing countries, it’s hardly a piffling enterpise, either!

It’s purpose, essentially, is to bring a raft of countries together to figure out how to increase food production (and soil carbon sequestration) while at the same time decreasing agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  A tall order, indeed, but one that is incredibly important, given that it’s been estimated that agriculture contributes ~30% of the world’s GHG emissions.

It’s also particularly challenging, given that some of the strategies being used to decrease emissions in other sectors - for example, increasing the price of something - isn’t really a viable strategy here.

Most of the 4-day meeting is closed, but today’s opening session was open to the press, meaning that I was able to attend.  Managing to pack 4 speakers into an hour and half (and three of those into the first 30 minutes), there was a lot to get my head around.

Of course, the overriding message was the importance of the GRA initiative, and sincere hopes expressed that this, unlike so many other international negotiations, this one wouldn’t be derailed.

Minister of Agriculture David Carter and PM John Key opened the session, introducing the talks, their context, some of the challenges the GRA faces and where New Zealand fits into everything.

M.S. Swaminathan
M.S. Swaminathan

They were followed by the, well, illustrious is only the word, Professor M.S. Swaminathan.  He’s widely regarded as the Father of the Green Revolution in India, and one of TIME magazine’s top 20 most influential Asians of the 20th Century.  Amongst other things.  He spoke, very informally (and by telecast) of the need to find ways both to mitigate climate change, and adapt to it.  Using mangrove’s as an example, he spoke of the vital importance of building up comprehensive gene banks to safeguard biodiversity, and of the role that flora can have in helping us both mitigate and adapt.  As he said:

“Nature provides for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed”

An example he used was that of mangroves: not only are they powerful sequesterers of carbon, but they’re also brilliant as  a ‘bioshield’.  He says that they, and plants like them, should be grown all along the coast not only to absorb and store carbon, but to act as a bioshield against high waters, either from tsunamis or from sea level rise.

He spoke of the use of trees as ‘fertiliser’ trees as well, highlighting it as another important initiative - apparently, one of the principal problems with tropical soils is that they’re carbon poor!

Swaminathan feels that the ‘megacalamity’ of climate change can be used as an opportunity, but emphasizes the importance of the bringing technology and public policy together, and the need for simple strategies and policies, if anything meaningful is to be achieved.  I really like his closing exhortation:

“Let us decide that in 15 or 20 years, greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the agricultural sector will be almost nil, because we can use all those gases to good advantage in enhancing the productivity and profitability of major farming systems.”

This need for fast, and simple, policies was echoed by the next (and final speaker for the open session), Timothy D Searchinger.

Tom Searchinger
Tim Searchinger

Searchinger hails from Princeton University, and is an expert on analysing how to expand food production without at the same time increasing pastoral GHG emissions. He’s known particularly for his work on biofuels and land use, and made a number of strong points.  One of the most striking - something that seems obvious, but about which I hadn’t thought - was how potential land for agriculture is counted.  A mistake that is commonly made is to double or triple count land use.  So, for example, when thinking about how marginal land could be used, it gets counted for its potential as crop land, AND range land, and maybe for biofuels** as well, and nobody thinks to include the effects of losing whatever function it currently serves.  Apparently this happens particularly with forested land as well.

And, of course, he made clear that what we need is not less agriculture, but better, more, and more efficient agriculture.

Searchinger touched on a number of other subjects, including the importance of soil carbon*, the difference in emissions between crop and range land, the whole nitrogen thing, and was clear on where he is both pessimistic and optimistic about what is happening.  It was  fascinating talk, but I think it was his final image that I liked best:

“I think that what New Zealand is doing bringing you all together is a new beginning and a new hope. And the reason, despite all the pessimistic numbers, I ultimately feel optimistic, is precisely because there’s been so little effort to deal with these problems in the past.  Now, I don’t know how hard it would be to develop vaccines for livestock to reduce their emissions, but I do know that we’ve just started looking at it. And I don’t know how hard it would be to develop supergranules that reduce nitrous oxide emissions, maybe with a nitrification inhibitor to keep the nitrogen in the form of ammonium so it doesn’t form nitrous oxide,  but I know that there are only about a dozen people in the world trying. That leads me to believe that, while this is as important as rocket science, and we need people as smart as rocket scientists, we can solve it just like we build rockets.  I wish you good luck in making agricultural greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of rocket science so in the future, 30 years from now, we’ll say ‘you don’t have to be an agricultural greenhouse gas scientist to understand this problem’.

In conclusion - there was certainly a lot said, but, as with anything, it remains to be seen what will actually come out of the meeting.  We can only hope that is doesn’t derail, as so many other negotiations like it have.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve of course left a lot out. For anyone who’d like to hear the various speeches (and see Searchinger’s slides), they can be found on the SMC website, here.

UPDATE: Searchinger will also be giving a talk entitled “The True Consequences of Bioenergy for Greenhouse Gas Emissions” at VUW this Friday, 8 April.


* And here’s a scary fact with it - even New Zealand, which has the best pasture management systems in the world (yay!), may  still be losing soil carbon (boo!).

** In more detail, and the words of the man himself:

“I want to mention a little about biofuels, because biofuels are also sometimes put in the cateogry of agricultural sequestration, or agricultural mitigation.  Again, it’s a little bit of an odd place to put them, because they won’t mitigate agricultural emissions, they would if anything mitigate energy emissions. The basic theory behind biofuels - the reason people think biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – is of course because of the word ‘bio’.  Bio means they start from plants: growing plants of course takes carbon out of the atmosphere.  So in theory, when you burn the biofuel you just put the carbon back into the atmosphere, unlike fossil fuels, where you take carbon out of the ground and you put it in the atmosphere.

Now, I’ve been involved in writing a number of papers that others have now built on, and basically there’s one problem with that, which is that plants are growing anyway. If you use land to produce plants for biofuels, you’re not using land to produce plants for other purposes.  So what we need are additional plants – it’s only the additional plants that count. And most of our analyses have counted ALL the plants, as though there were not plants there otherwise, either sequestering carbon or producing food.  Now, pretty much every really large estimate of bioenergy potential that you have probably seen, either directly or indirectly, counts carbon we’ve already counted. So, the IPPC has itself published a couple of anlyses with enormous bioenergy potentially – basically, it could produce ALL of our energy through bioenergy – assuming that we could use all of the potential coprland that we’re not already using.  Now, what is the world’s potential cropland that we’re not already using?  It’s essentially all of the world’s forests and [weather-storing?] land, and most of that land that’s available is in Latin America and Africa: that’s precisely the carbon we need to keep in the forests…The key point is, you can only count land, and land use, once.”