This week marks the end of 2022’s United Nations' Climate Change Conference – COP27, with leaders from across the world coming together to tackle huge climate related issues as well as rising temperatures.
Like so many agricultural commodities, tea both contributes to climate change, and is also vulnerable to its impacts.
In a discussion with the Ethical Tea Partnership's (ETP) Environmental and Climate Lead, Rachel Cracknell, we reflect on what has changed since last year’s COP26, and what the outcomes from COP27 will mean for the tea industry.
Last year you described COP26 as our “last chance attempt to prevent global catastrophic climate change”. What do you hope is achieved as a result of COP27?
Rachel Cracknell: It is hard to know how it will go. I have my hopes.
One of the things that I feel has changed since COP26 is the increased dialogue between the biodiversity crisis, and the food and energy crisis, and really understanding and talking about the interlinkages between them. That feels very positive.
There needs to be innovation on how to support farmers from a financial perspective. Carbon credits for improved soil management are difficult to pull off, and not yet possible in the smallholder sector. We urgently need new approaches to provide pioneering financial mechanisms to support farmers, especially in Africa and Asia, to transition to farming practises that absorb carbon and increase their resilience to climate change.
I’m not sure what those are, but I hope that the experts at COP27 can work them out! I hope that agriculture remains firmly on the agenda this year, and that real progress is made.
You stressed the importance of soil to agriculture during your vlogs at COP26. You described it as the “most valuable asset” to tea farmers, highlighting the key role it plays in mitigating the impact of climate change.
Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) were mentioned as a solution to help provide funds to farmers for improved soil management. Have any PES systems been implemented in the tea industry?
Rachel: Soil is obviously critical for any farmer, and every agricultural commodity.
“Soil is the life that creates the crop they’re producing. Without soil, there is no crop.”
There is so much potential for better soil management to address many of the challenges that all agricultural commodities are facing; building crop resilience, locking carbon in the soil, and helping to address the parallel global nature and biodiversity crisis that we face.
However, it is difficult to incentivise farmers to change farming practises.
It requires investing time and money, which isn’t accessible to many, coupled with a risk of initial crop productivity reductions. This is where payments for ecosystems services should come in, including carbon payments.
But to make carbon payments viable, a robust monitoring and verification system is needed, which is currently only cost effective in monocultures on a large scale. Trying to find a way to bring this to smallholder farmers is not happening right now, and this is a real lost opportunity.
“One of the things I really want to see at COP27 is the leading experts in the industry coming together to think about how to unlock this challenge.”
Deforestation also presents a huge challenge, with a range of negative impacts for those working in tea. A commitment to end and reverse deforestation was made at COP26 by global leaders – have you seen any steps forward in the past year which indicate that this commitment will be upheld?
Rachel: From our members’ perspective, yes, I do get the sense that companies are now seeing deforestation as a serious issue.
At ETP, the most noteworthy advance we have seen is in the Sri Lankan tea industry. As part of a project with German development agency GIZ in 2021, we helped the tea industry develop a carbon neutral tea road map.
When the project ended, the country’s Ministry of Plantations asked us to help uncover the risks associated with policy and practices that can lead to hidden deforestation in the tea industry.
In response, we’re now supporting the development of a national Framework for Sustainable Fuelwood sourcing for the Sri Lankan tea industry. It is a really promising step forward that both the Sri Lankan government and tea industry are keen to understand what is needed to mitigate any hidden deforestation.
What do you think are the most effective ways to implement projects that will make the most impact to tackle deforestation at scale?
Rachel: Really trying to understand deforestation is the first step, as it can be a real hidden issue, especially in value chains such as tea that use significant volumes of firewood.
Once you know what is going on, you can start working with government and industry bodies to create policies that address the challenges identified.
This should be coupled with research looking into innovative solutions (including financial mechanisms), new opportunities and new technology to help further.
“Once you have transparency, you can convene the sector around that common understanding of what the issue is, to create a shared vision of how to address the challenges.”
New tea clones that can adapt to climate change are one solution to increase the resilience of the tea industry, however many smallholder farmers cannot afford these.
Do you think we will see a shift in the balance between smallholder farmers and big tea estates as smallholders cannot afford to keep up with the impact of the climate crisis on their farms?
Rachel: I see this as being a real risk, absolutely. This is where organisations like ETP come in. It is our role to improve the lives and livelihoods of people working in the tea industry.
“It is generally the most vulnerable in a value chain who will go out of business first.”
At ETP, if you look at our Strategy2030, you can see the three pillars which need to be incorporated into any work we do with smallholders. We need to make sure that all projects consider environmental issues in parallel with improving farmer family incomes, and empowering women within the project too. This joined up thinking is critical to developing and delivering real change on the ground for farmers.