Climate-smart farming could help reduce 'emissions gap' - experts

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 17 November 2013 08:19 GMT

A farmer removes old plants to sow broad beans at a village near a new residential compound in Hefei, Anhui province, Nov. 13, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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Tackling emissions from food production could help the world keep to a 2 degree warming limit, but there challenges to getting farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture methods

WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Scientists at the U.N. climate talks in Poland have said that expanding the use of climate-smart farming techniques could help reduce the “emissions gap” – the difference between the amount of greenhouse gases the world can emit by 2020 if it wants to avoid dangerous climate change and the larger quantity likely to be produced without tougher steps.

Researchers have estimated that global food systems pump between 9.5 and 14.7 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year, or between 19 and 29 percent of total emissions.

According to the 2013 Emissions Gap Report released on Nov. 5 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an agreement by almost 200 countries in 2010 to limit the rise in global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius is unlikely to be achieved if the world continues with business as usual.

The report found the gap between governments’ pledges to cut their emissions and the reductions scientists estimate are needed by 2020 to avoid the potentially devastating effects of global warming to be 8 billion to 12 billion tonnes per year.

Merlyn Van Voore, an adaption specialist with UNEP, told an event on the sidelines of the Nov. 11-22 talks in Warsaw that, if well executed, climate-smart agriculture has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 1 and 4 billion tonnes by 2020.

“The global community is not doing enough,” she said. “It is still possible to close the emission gap if (emissions reduction) pledges are met, and if the right technologies are promoted appropriately.”

Japan dealt a blow to this aspiration on Friday, slashing its target for emissions reductions by 2020, after its nuclear power industry was shuttered by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. 


Meanwhile, putting climate-smart agriculture methods into practice on a scale large enough to make a difference remains a challenge, experts said.

Climate-smart agriculture refers to a suite of practical techniques, including mulching, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, agroforestry, improved grazing and better water management.

“As much as we support climate-smart agriculture, we must keep in mind that it is not a magic bullet solution,” said Henry Neufeldt, head of climate change research for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). “Technologies must be context-specific to the region or country where they are introduced. It is not a straightforward thing,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Complicating matters, the potential for climate-smart agriculture to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere has left some in the developing world concerned that rich nations might use it as an excuse to force them to limit their carbon emissions from farming under a new global climate deal, due to be agreed in 2015.

“We are pro climate-smart agriculture, but it should be considered to be an adaptation technique and not a mitigation measure,” said Mohammed Nasr, lead negotiator on climate finance for the Africa group of countries. In addition, African smallholders should be given financial support to adopt new agricultural technologies in the form of grants and not loans, he added.

Mithika Mwenda, secretary general of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), went further, stating that Africa “should have nothing to do with mitigation”. “We must be very cautious. We already have a soil carbon project in place, which is using agriculture as a means of mitigation,” he said.

The Smallholder Agriculture Carbon Finance Project is an initiative being piloted in western Kenya by Vi Agroforestry, a Swedish development group, and supported by the World Bank, in which farmers can earn carbon credits by practising conservation agriculture.


In general, climate-smart agriculture seeks to increase sustainable productivity, strengthen farmers’ resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

In western Kenya, on the flood-prone Nyando plains, farmers say the method has greatly improved their livelihoods, although they are not aware of its emissions reduction potential.

“In the past two years, I have seen a huge difference on my farm,” John Obuom, a small farmer from the region told Thomson Reuters Foundation during a recent visit to his farm with the World Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte. “Since I started farming 10 years ago, I have never seen my two-acre piece of land stay green throughout the year as it is today,” Obuom said.

Obuom now grows a range of crops on his farm all year round, planting them together with leguminous crops that fix nitrogen in the soil, and uses mulch to retain soil moisture.

He has 100 pawpaw trees, vegetables, bananas and beans, among the plants and trees on his land.

Other groups of farmers in the area have taken to greenhouse farming, using small areas of land to produce tomatoes and vegetables for commercial purposes.

These farmers, mostly young, are taking advantage of government development funds to invest in climate-smart agriculture. If a funding application Obuom has submitted with other farmers is successful, they will invest in drip irrigation systems and greenhouse farming, he said.

In the same vein, the government has introduced farmers in all of Kenya’s major rice irrigation schemes to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which allows them to grow rice without completely flooding their paddy fields.

Flooded paddy fields produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also require large amounts of water, which has become scarcer due to droughts in recent years and rising water demand from a growing population.

Yet, despite progress on the ground, agriculture is making little headway at the U.N. climate talks, and has become a bargaining chip for some states like India, which do not want its mitigation potential to be discussed. They are unlikely to budge until rich countries show more willingness to cut their own emissions and boost assistance for developing nations.

“We hope the developed countries (in Warsaw) will deliver on pledges made earlier and invest at least 1.5 percent of their gross domestic product in adaptation and technology transfer in least developed countries. That way, we will be headed in the right direction,” said PACJA’s Mwenda.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specialising in environment and agriculture reporting. He can be reached through

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