February 22, 2016

22/02/2016: The Pelletier Column: The talking is over, it is time for action

by Christophe Pelletier

First published in Milling and Grain, January 2016

In my previous column, I had expressed doubts about any significant outcome of the COP21 conference. I must have been wrong because most headlines I have read emphasise what a huge success has been achieved and how history has been written in Paris.

You may call me a killjoy, but I still have some reservations about what is in the Paris agreement. As I wrote last month, I expected no less than a last minute hard-fought agreement. It has been like that at every past conference. Apart from a text in which all countries recognise that something must be done to fight climate change, the content is vague enough and has been watered down enough so that everyone feels good about agreeing with it.

Achieving the target of limiting the temperature increase at less than two degrees, and ideally at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius is a task of a different magnitude than writing a text of 31 pages. Nowhere in the text does it appear clearly who is not only responsible, but also accountable for delivering the results and to whom they should be accountable.

The agreement needs at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions to be ratified. In my view, the Paris agreement would have more convincing if it had actually been ratified. Further, there does not seem to be any penalty system for the countries that would not do a good job at reducing their emissions. As I wrote last month, I believe more in rewarding those who do well than punishing those who do not.

The lack of penalty in the agreement does not bother me as much as the lack of reward. Sometimes the stick works, sometimes the carrot works and sometimes a combination of both is best, but rarely does no carrot and no stick get things done. Nonetheless, let’s look at this agreement positively and assume all countries have actually started working hard on meeting the target. The wall to climb is quite high and we must not fool ourselves. We will not reach the target with the current economic model, which has led us to where we are today.

As Einstein said, we cannot expect different results by doing the same. So what is going to change during the next 35 years? How will the economic model change and evolve, what will make it change? Where is the vision of the future world? Chanting “this is the end of fossil fuels” is not a vision as such, unless someone can present how they get replaced, by what and how it changes the economy and the economics of human activities.

Other question mark is how the people are going to buy in on the future directions. The leaders can agree all they want, but the average Joe and Jane have bills to pay. They need jobs and money. If change is perceived as loss, there will be resistance. As always when it comes to managing change, genuine and candid communication is essential. There will have to be incentives to change behaviour, and they will have to translate in financial advantage to the people.

Among all the goods and services, food definitely has a special place to both consumers and in regard to climate change. In an interview to the Dutch NOS on the day the COP21 text was adopted, Pier Vellinga, Climate Professor at the Wageningen Agricultural University, indicated that we need to look at food differently and in particular we should reduce our consumption of animal protein as he sees this as healthier for us and for the planet.

He also encourages farmers to move to mixed farm production systems and to more organic methods. This is a different view from the one of Aalt Dijkhuizen, President of Dutch Topsector Agri&Food, and former professor at Wageningen University, who has always advocated for intensive animal production systems that he considers better for the environment than organic and extensive ones. Different opinions are good. I am a strong believer that to improve how we produce food, we need to have candid and robust dialogues.

Because of the diversity of natural conditions as well as the diversity of cultural, sociological and political, there are many different solutions that must be implemented where they work best.

The debate about food always sounds like there should be a universal system. That is in plain contradiction with nature and human nature, too. Pragmatism is going to be one of the most important assets for the future. Nothing is carved in stone. The food and agriculture sectors have an ideal role to play in carrying out such dialogues because the well being of humanity depends on it.

I encourage you to initiate dialogue anywhere and anyway you think will foster progress.

Christophe Pelletier is a food and agriculture strategist and futurist from Canada. He works internationally. He has published two books on feeding the world’s growing population. His blog is called “The Food Futurist”  

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