Carlos Suárez, who is Manager Sustainability, Policy and Innovation, at the U.S. Grains Council and a member of the USSA Management Council, attended the recent UN climate change conference in Dubai (30 November – 12 December 2023). In this exclusive article, he shares his key takeaways from the event. 

The global impact of a rapidly changing and warming climate has put environmental sustainability at the forefront of humanity’s concerns and made it the focus of international efforts to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. This ambitious goal was the driving force behind negotiations at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, where the U.S. Government and U.S. Sustainability Alliance members were out in force.

Acknowledging Science, Making an Impact 

Understanding the impact of our activities on the planet, or even our immediate surroundings, seems simple. However, it took decades until ground-based and satellite imagery in the early 1980s led countries to acknowledge the big hole in the ozone layer caused by certain types of aerosols and other consumer products. In the same vein, regulators dragged their heels for over 20 years before accepting the science that showed the adverse health and neurological effects caused by combusting massive amounts of leaded gasoline.

The good news is that, collectively, we have shown great capacity to work together, negotiate international agreements, develop local regulations, and ultimately address these large-scale challenges. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 committed the international community to ban the use of the most harmful ozone-depleting substances, while national regulators phased out the use of lead in gasoline, which is why you see the “unleaded fuel only” label on car fuel lid covers worldwide. The ozone has since recovered, and lead in gasoline has not been a concern for decades, even if aromatic hydrocarbons and other toxic components continue to be combusted instead of using clean sources of octane such as ethanol.

COP28 Collaboration

This year in Dubai, country government representatives from all over the world met for the 28th time, with what could be described as a strong inclination towards achieving meaningful climate action to avert a global catastrophe. While climate change science continues to underpin the whole COP process, the focus now lies in balancing the actions, resources, and interests of the diverse group of countries represented at the event. Developed and developing nations, past and future emitters, fossil fuel producers, and consumers are all looking to have their interests taken into consideration. Doing so while keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees is where the rubber meets the road. 

Agriculture and food systems are a recent addition to the UNFCCC process, which started with the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) decision reached at COP23. Focusing on six topics (soil, nutrient use, water, livestock, methods for assessing adaptation, and the socioeconomic and food security aspects of climate change), the KJWA shared relevant scientific and technical knowledge through COP27 and highlighted the need to mainstream agriculture into UNFCCC processes. 

The first Food, Agriculture, and Water Day at COP28 was a direct result of KJWA’s work. But the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action made during the first week of the conference is even more noteworthy. Under this declaration, which eventually gained the support of 152 countries, signing parties increased their commitment to transform food systems, with countries moving to incorporate concrete goals and actions within nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national adaptation plans (NAPs) by 2025.  

U.S. Sustainability Leadership

The declaration was reinforced by a stream of announcements of funding to support climate-smart and sustainable production practices. The United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) led the way with the news that investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation by Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) partners has more than doubled – from $8 billion at COP27 to more than $17 billion. This complemented the social and environmental impacts of over $3 billion in funding for the Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program, a U.S. government initiative that aims to expand markets and create climate solutions for American farmers and landowners, and a $20 billion investment under the Inflation Reduction Act to expand conservation practices. 

Many U.S. producer associations attending the conference reinforced the commitment and leadership in sustainable agriculture demonstrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at COP28. Working closely with the U.S. delegation, producer associations such as the U.S. Grains Council, the U.S. Soy Export Council, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and the American Feed Industry Association participated in multiple panels to showcase the wide range of practices that will help producers reduce their environmental impacts and keep farmers on the land. Developments ranged from massive investments in cover crops to research and application of new technologies to reduce GHG emissions associated with enteric fermentation. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack went as far as to say that “in this COP, we flipped the script for American agriculture.”

Agriculture Takes Center Stage

Arguably, COP28’s most notable achievement is a deal that, for the first time, calls on all nations to transition away from fossil fuels to combat the worst effects of climate change. However, another positive development is the increased focus on food and agriculture. Unlike fossil fuels, agriculture presents a massive opportunity for carbon capture that the world is just beginning to unlock. As countries incorporate Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) related to agriculture and food systems, U.S. agriculture and producer associations can play a growing role in showcasing the U.S. incentive-driven, market-based model.

This model aligns resources, markets, and production practices to help keep global warming within the globally agreed threshold. Here’s to COP29 and agriculture’s continued rise up the climate change agenda.