December 19, 2016

Four unexplored big wins in agriculture: tackling climate change through landscape restoration

Georgina Smith, CIAT

At the Global Landscapes Forum in Marrakech in November, CIAT and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems co-hosted a session titled, Unexplored big wins for climate change through landscape restoration.” This blog post presents the key messages from that event. It originally appeared on the CIAT blog and we are re-publishing it here as part of our “Best of 2016 from LPFN partners” series.

Four solutions lie in how we farm our food and treat our landscapes: this session aimed to throw light on some of the tools that can tackle climate change head-on.

During this session, we called on the audience at the Global Landscape Forum, an event at the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Morocco from November 7th-18th* to consider these:

The first big win: trees on agricultural land could sink four times more carbon.

Recent studies show that carbon sequestered by trees on agricultural land is not well accounted for. If it was, researchers argue in this study: “Global Tree Cover and Biomass Carbon on Agricultural Land: The contribution of agroforestry to global and national carbon budgets,” total carbon estimates from agricultural land could be more than four times higher than they are.

Yet while carbon stored and sequestered by forests is widely recognized and land cover changes well monitored, carbon stored by trees on agricultural land needs to be measured better. Growing more trees on farm land could be a fast and easy route to increasing carbon sequestration, above and below ground, with a myriad of other benefits.

That entails mapping landscapes to guide decision makers about where to invest in certain management practices over others, and policies that enhance carbon sequestration on agricultural land to benefit farmers and society as a whole.

GrassHand_CIAT

The second big win is that carbon can be absorbed back into the soil.

The stock of carbon in the soil is twice as high as that in the atmosphere. Small changes in soil carbon can have big impact on atmospheric carbon.

This session discusses new research from CIAT and The Nature Conservancy, presenting an initiative that could offset all CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning that are not already absorbed by oceans and land.

Data and maps show the most up-to-date soil properties from World Soil Information and Food and Agriculture Organization and illustrate where carbon could be sequestered if practices to enhance soil organic matter were widely adopted.

Since agricultural soils, already managed actively, have lost significant amounts of carbon, they could also re-absorb carbon based on soil type and climate. What’s needed are site-specific tools for decision makers presenting the bigger picture on where soils are degraded, and where to invest to improve soil carbon stocks.

A third big win looks at protecting wetland and peatland ecosystems.

These ecosystems contain around 20% of global soil organic carbon stocks. But tropical peat fires are a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, producing transboundary “hazes” impacting human health, regional economies and ecosystems.

Huge opportunities to mitigate climate change lie in protecting these lands. But they are often under threat from commercial and development interests. Combined with contemporary agricultural practices on peatlands – land clearance, burning, drainage and fertilization – these landscapes and the carbon they store are at risk. How can they be climate-proofed?

The fourth big win shows how improving grasslands can provide a triple-climate-win.

Brachiaria grasses sequester significant amounts of soil organic carbon – conservative estimates indicate a 2-3 fold higher annual sequestration rate than in other annual cropping systems.

A growing body of research shows that some varieties of brachiaria reduce N2O emissions from soils, a phenomenon known as biological nitrification inhibition. New research also finds 40% more milk and tens of millions of dollars in revenue are possible for African farmers adopting drought resilient brachiaria varieties.

Wider adoption of brachiaria grasses to improve grasslands has a tremendous potential to mitigate climate – especially in sub-Saharan Africa. But further research is needed to investigate commercial-quality seed in Africa, and tackle climate-related challenges like new pests and diseases.

For more information and next steps on action read our four briefs:

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