Nicolas Hulot: “The agricultural sector must transform everywhere in the world”

In an exclusive interview with Spore, the former French Minister of Ecological and Inclusive Transition explains the issues at stake at the UN climate change conference (COP24), which will be held in Poland in December 2018, and the central role of agriculture in the context of climate change.

The former French Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition highlights the central role of agriculture in addressing climate change © Arnaud Bouissou/TERRA

This interview was conducted with Nicolas Hulot in June 2018, when he was still French Minister for the Ecological and Solidarity Transition, and was to be published before COP24.

As a former journalist and environmental activist, Nicolas Hulot explains his expectations from the next Conventions of the Parties (COP) as well as the Talanoa Dialogue Platform, which is inspired by a Fijian process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue and was launched after COP23.

The Paris Agreement was signed more than 2 years ago and COP24 is on the horizon. Where are countries up to with regard to their pledges?

The Paris Agreement is a common framework that guides the decisions we make, the action we take, and the way we shape our economies to address the threat of climate change. But, of course, it is merely the first step on a long journey. Signing agreements or speaking with one voice is not enough on its own. All parties need to stick to their promises and make more ambitious pledges. We have 196 countries working towards the targets. It remains to be seen whether they are all in it for the long term. There’s a real risk there. But I don’t think we can go back on the Paris Agreement. Even if some countries pull out temporarily, that shouldn’t alter our determination to act. Efforts to implement the Paris Agreement are continuing. Some countries have already begun reshaping their economies as they work towards the targets. You can already see that happening in practice. The exponential growth of solar power and other renewables is a prime example. And we have more and more ‘zero emissions’ cars on the roads in every corner of the world.

That said, we should be mindful that our current pledges fall far short of the effort we need to meet the Paris Agreement’s main target – keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C by the end of this century. Getting everyone to appreciate the urgency of the task at hand is the main challenge. We have to do more, and do it faster.

After last year’s COP23 conference, you made it quite clear that you were disappointed with how slowly talks were progressing and how little had been achieved. What do you expect from COP24?

I’m acutely aware of the urgent situation we face. We need to ramp up the pace of progress. There’s no way I can be fully happy with how things are right now. But I’m optimistic that we have it in us to act. I’m always ready to praise progress when it happens. As a matter of fact, some good things did come out of COP23.

The conference, under the presidency of Fiji, covered plenty of ground and compromises were reached. It also revealed the momentum behind the anti-climate change movement among non-state actors and organisations like ‘We’re still in’ – a 1,200-member US coalition that shows how the country’s economy is already moving towards a low-carbon future, despite reluctance in the White House.

COP23 underscored the same trend we’ve seen time and again since Paris – the world really is moving towards a low-carbon economy. But the speed of progress isn’t enough because the climate is changing so fast. We need to step up the pace to keep up. That will be the challenge for COP24 and the Talanoa Dialogue. In Paris, we agreed to collectively review our pledges 3 years after the agreement, and to set the bar higher if they fall short of the mark. France has already done that by setting a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. Achieving that aim now requires more effort.

ACP countries produce very little pollution but are extremely vulnerable to climate change. How will the situation in these countries be addressed in the run-up to COP24 and at the conference itself? Will their voices be heard in the talks?

You already know how strongly I feel about this subject. Some countries have made barely any contribution to climate change yet are its biggest victims. It’s a situation I feel responsible for. These countries are vulnerable and suffering more than most. It’s a real injustice.

There has always been room for the most vulnerable countries to have their say in climate talks. Their climate change priorities – adaptation, access to finance, and technology and skills transfer – are written into the Paris Agreement, as is the fact that developed nations have a reciprocal duty to help them in these areas.

I expect COP24 to maintain the spotlight on the most vulnerable countries. The presidencies of the two previous conferences were held by Morocco and Fiji, both vulnerable to climate change, and ACP countries’ priorities will remain on the agenda. France is calling for a greater focus on climate change adaptation and is determined to use its official development assistance to this end. We will be ramping up our adaptation finance from less than €500 million in 2015 to €1.2 billion in 2020. If every industrialised nation does the same, we’ll have doubled funding for adaptation initiatives in 5 years. That’s real progress.

How will the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture reshape talks around agricultural adaptation and resource management?

The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture was launched at COP23 in November 2017. FAO has commended the initiative, calling it a decisive step in the right direction. The aim is clear – to make agriculture a pioneer in efforts to address climate change. The 3-year programme of work covers a range of technical issues including climate change adaptation, nutrient and agricultural pollution management, soil, livestock farming, agro-pastoralism and food security.

The Koronivia initiative sets us up for successful global transition of the agricultural sector. For the very first time, COP, through the agricultural negotiating group, is able to adopt recommendations for entities responsible for implementing the Convention (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), for example. The Convention’s constituted bodies are also invited to contribute and participate in the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture’s workshops. Collective intelligence is vital to achieving our goal, and this is a prime example of exactly that in action. The idea is to have an inclusive process and hold workshops that bring together all stakeholders. That’s the best path to success.

How can the agricultural sector in ACP countries support climate change efforts and adapt accordingly?

The world’s population is growing and we’re already feeling the effects of climate change. So agriculture needs to change in every part of the world. Rather than seeing this transition as a burden, we need to think of it as an opportunity.

The Paris Agreement is a unique opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, to store more organic matter in the ground, to protect rural jobs, and to make the sector more resilient. It’s widely accepted that we have no chance of keeping to the 2°C target unless we build broad support for protecting our soil, and unless we address desertification in a meaningful way. I’d like to see the Talanoa Dialogue Platform strengthen our commitment to protecting the soil. The ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative, and other programmes emerging from COP21, should help make that happen.

Addressing climate change is also about reducing losses and waste, saving precious resources through circular economy initiatives, and optimising the nitrogen and carbon cycles by recycling organic matter. We should be harnessing natural solutions and using service plants and biological control methods. And we should be embracing renewable energy from anaerobic digestion, wind, solar and agroforestry-produced wood. We know that doing so is an important way for farmers to diversify their income.

Much of our knowledge on agriculture and climate change comes from farmer-led innovation and local projects. We need to promote initiatives like these, spread the word across each country and make these practices the rule, not the exception.

What role does climate-smart agriculture have to play in delivering food security for all? Are you aware of any successful initiatives?

It’s not entirely clear what climate-smart agriculture means. It’s a broad term that covers a wide range of practices. I prefer to talk about ‘agroecology’ – an approach that focuses simultaneously on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to the effects of climate change, respecting biodiversity and improving soil quality. Argoecology is the best agricultural model we have to maintain and improve food security.

As for actual examples, you only have to look at places like northern Togo, and other parts of the world suffering the worst effects of climate change. Here, farmers are using temporary cover crops to enable the soil to retain more water, and to earn extra income. The creation of agroforestry plots along the advancing deforestation line – among cacao plantations in Cameroon and in Côte d’Ivoire – is another striking example. Initiatives like these stop plantations encroaching further into the forest because they increase productivity.

How could the private sector help make agriculture both productive and climate-resilient in ACP countries?

Agroecology doesn’t just focus on plots and production. It spans the whole food system, from farm to fork, and it addresses losses and waste.

Its success depends on the private sector being involved at every stage. That includes farmers, of course, but also the whole value chain – agribusiness, distribution, finance, insurance, risk management and more. The private sector has a game-changing role to play in ACP countries to ensure that agriculture produces enough food for people to eat while remaining climate-resilient.

We also need to harness private-sector innovation. It should be a central part of everything we do. We have to come up with new, inventive ways of doing things. Social innovation is just as important as new technology. And technology should always strike the right balance between science and conscience.

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.