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Daily News Blog

05
Jan

UN Climate Crisis Conference Calls for Phaseout of Fossil Fuels, which Are Used to Produce Pesticides and Fertilizers

Protect our planet—COP28’s call for an end to fossil fuels aligns with Beyond Pesticides’ call for the elimination of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers by 2032.

(Beyond Pesticides, January 5, 2023) The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28) wrapped up in Dubai on December 13 with what some hailed as a breakthrough agreement among almost 200 countries to reduce fossil fuel consumption that signals “the eventual end of the oil age.” To be successful and assure human survival, eliminating oil, gas, and coal use, Beyond Pesticides is calling for the elimination of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and support for organic, regenerative agriculture around the world.

Because of the insurmountable crises that are caused or exacerbated by petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, the adoption of organic land management practices and the need for foundational change in federal, state, and local policies and practices has come into focus. Under organic management, healthy soil can absorb and store 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil annually. This translates to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre drawn down from the air and sequestered into organic matter in soil. (It is noteworthy that use of synthetic fertilizers actually compromises the carbon-capture ability of some kinds of terrain, such as salt marshes.) A fact often overlooked by policy makers in generating climate strategies is that carbon-sequestering soil practices are federally mandated in certified organic agriculture.

As reported by Beyond Pesticides in October 2021 before COP26, the use of synthetic fertilizers is a particular and noxious contributor to the rising planetary temperature. This happens largely through these products’ emissions of nitrous oxide, or NOx — another potent greenhouse gas that also pollutes the air and feeds the development of ozone. NOx is roughly 300 times as potent in trapping heat as CO2. (In addition, runoff of high-nitrogen, synthetic fertilizers contaminate water bodies and contributes to eutrophication.) Nitrous oxide levels have increased, compared to pre-industrial levels, by 20% from all sources. Earlier in 2021, Beyond Pesticides asserted, “The excess nitrogen in these fertilizers is . . . driving global nitrous oxide emissions dangerously high, exacerbating the climate crisis.” For more on climate-friendly organic agriculture, see Daily News and the groundbreaking work of the Rodale Institute, as captured in its Farming Systems Trial — 40-Year Report. California Certified Organic Farmers Association’s Roadmap to an Organic California provides a policy framework for advancing agricultural programs that combat climate change. 

COP28’s call for an end to fossil fuels aligns with Beyond Pesticides’ call for the elimination of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers by 2032. This grows out of the experience with the viability of organic land management as a productive and profitable alternative to chemical-intensive land management (including agriculture, parks, playing fields, schoolyards, and home landscapes and gardens).

At the Beyond Pesticides November 2022 National Forum session on climate, scientists discussed the science and the urgent need for a strategic response to the climate crisis as part of a constellation of crises that intersect. Whether talking about a health crisis borne out of chemical-induced diseases, the collapse of life-sustaining biodiversity, or the dramatic catastrophes caused by greenhouse gases and rising temperatures—the interconnectedness of the crises, advocates say, requires solutions that are holistic and nurturing of humans’ relationship with nature—interrelationship that have been neglected as a matter of policy and practice.

Leading up to COP28, in October, 2023, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) captures the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis in Time to Treat the Climate and Nature Crisis as One Indivisible Global Health Emergency. The authors state: “Over 200 health journals call on the United Nations, political leaders, and health professionals to recognize that climate change and biodiversity loss are one indivisible crisis and must be tackled together to preserve health and avoid catastrophe. This overall environmental crisis is now so severe as to be a global health emergency.”

There is a particularly noxious feedback loop involving climate and pesticides. Beyond Pesticides covered a Nature Communications study in 2021 showing that as the climate warms, pests form a permanent population in places where they were formerly seasonal. Permanent or endemic pests are often repeatedly exposed to the same pesticide and become resistant. Seasonally abundant pests are not exposed year-round and tend to be less resistant. Warmer temperatures enable larger year-round pest populations that can expand into new habitats, resulting in more pesticide use. It is essential to restrict warming as much as possible while adopting agricultural coping methods that do not involve pesticides. The temptation to use them will be powerful: For every degree of global surface warming, crop losses from insects are projected to increase some 10-25 percent, primarily in temperate regions where rice, maize and wheat are grown.

The problem of pests benefiting from warmer temperatures to expand their ranges and their food sources has been starkly evident in western Canada, where the boreal forest has been harvested for two centuries. The mountain pine beetle, endemic to western British Columbia, was historically killed off every year by cold weather. Further, healthy trees could fight off the beetles with toxic resin if the beetle population was low. But in the early 1990s, as British Columbia temperatures rose, the beetle population grew and expanded its range northward and eastward. By 2007 the pests in British Columbia reached epidemic proportions and crossed the Continental Divide into Alberta. Millions of trees died, contributing to ever more dire wildfires, with dense smoke from the conflagration in 2023 joining that of U.S. wildfires and covering much of the United States and Canada. To make matters worse, climate change has transformed much of Canada’s boreal forest from a sink to a source of atmospheric carbon. The beetle has also become a problem in U.S. forests. The primary insecticide used in futile attempts to control the beetle is carbaryl, a carcinogen and acetylcholinesterase inhibitor with neurotoxic effects.

It seems obvious that the rationales underpinning fossil fuel extraction and use in myriad ways is a case of humans shooting themselves in the foot. There is no solution to this wide array of crises that includes continued fossil fuel use. Beyond Pesticides has a rich archive of information and action plans to bring to bear on these entwined crises. The organization established the Parks for a Sustainable Future program, which underwrites horticultural consultation to plan the transition to organic land management in communities across the U.S. It also strives to maintain the integrity of organic standards through Keeping Organic Strong campaign and historical work to transition agriculture to organic practices. In 2022, Beyond Pesticides sponsored a Climate Change Calls for Phase Out of Fossil Fuels Linked to Petrochemical Pesticides and Fertilizer series of national virtual seminars (with archived videos) covering health, biodiversity and climate. And Rodale Institute’s work to show the efficacy and benefits of organic agriculture is cited.

The primary document emerging from COP28, called the “First Global Stocktake,” released at the end of the meeting, mentions the phrase “fossil fuels” just once, and the word “food” occurs only six times. But the fact that the phrase “fossil fuels” is used at all reflects a triumph over the resistance of the fossil fuel industry. More importantly, the agreement is the first time the parties have explicitly stated the intention to transition away from fossil fuels entirely. This is remarkable considering the intense wrangling that went on before agreement on the wording was reached.

On the other hand, the fossil fuel sector—including the host of the conference, the United Arab Emirates—continued to drag its feet, reprising old arguments for carbon capture rather than a complete phaseout of fossil fuels. Carbon capture has been studied, discussed and tested for two decades at least, but has yet to be implemented on anywhere near the scale necessary to prevent catastrophic warming. In fact, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, “Failed/underperforming projects considerably [outnumber] successful [carbon capture] experiences,” and the technology exists mostly as an excuse to continue extracting oil and natural gas.

Yet focusing on the fossil fuel undertow and the less-than-perfect commitment to ending the fossil fuel era may obscure other encouraging developments. In a further sign of forward momentum, COP28 was the first time a full day was devoted to food and agriculture at a U.N. climate conference. The U.S. delegation said many of the right things—a change from the Trump administration’s abrupt withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement. U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) Secretary Tom Vilsack touted President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides close to $20 billion to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural production and protect communities vulnerable to climate change impacts. The U.S.D.A. share of the IRA also includes more than $13 billion to “provide rural America with clean, affordable energy,” according to a U.S.D.A. press release.

The COP28 executive issued a call to develop “resilient food systems” in its UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. There were 153 national government signatories to the declaration, with some 200 non-party stakeholder organizations signing a companion Call to Action for Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature and Climate. Next year, at COP29 in Azerbaijan, there will be an opportunity to evaluate progress on these declarations’ stated commitments.

Given the number of countries that participated and the number and variety of other organizations, including non-governmental organizations and nonprofits, that held side meetings and observed, COP28 can be considered a success. Across many climate and agriculture activist constituencies, there is strong grassroots motivation to change what can be changed as soon as possible. Keeping the pressure up on the entwined issues of climate and food protection will lift all ships—that is, advancing the cause of organic agriculture will also be advancing the goal of net zero carbon emissions.

As noted  Beyond Pesticides’ 2022 post about the insect apocalypse, “While the solutions are in reach, tremendous public action is needed to stop the fossil fuel and agrichemical industries from their short-sighted pursuit of profit at any cost….Arguments are made that high intensity, industrial chemical agriculture is the only way to feed the world, and the fossil fuels are the only way to provide energy. Scientific data is now spelling out exactly what we are in for if we continue to endorse these dangerous myths.”

Ironically, the fossil fuel industry may not be considering a major possibility—that not only is continued fossil fuel use the highway to catastrophe, but in a drastically warming world, high intensity agriculture as currently practiced may not even be possible. On the present course pollinators and other helpful insects are being lost, along with water, topsoil, soil microbes and fungi, and all the other natural contributors to food production. No amount of fertilizer or pesticides can overcome these losses. Nor are high-tech, complex industrial processes likely to solve these problems. It is recognizing the dependence on the species, landscapes and natural processes of the planet that will deflect oncoming collapse.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources:
Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement Fifth session United Arab Emirates, 30 November to 12 December 2023
https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2023_L17_adv.pdf

Nations strike deal at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels
https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/countries-push-cop28-deal-fossil-fuels-talks-spill-into-overtime-2023-12-12/

The carbon capture crux: Lessons learned|https://ieefa.org/resources/carbon-capture-crux-lessons-learned

 

 

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